May. 13th, 2010

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Thirty-five years ago this July, crews from the United States and the Soviet Union rode their respective spacecraft into orbit from opposite ends of the planet. Following precisely plotted trajectories, and guided by their crews and by specialists on the ground, the Apollo and Soyuz vehicles met, maneuvered, and docked high over the Earth's surface, and for a while, the crewed capsules of the world's two principal space-faring nations flew as a single entity around our globe.

As had been the case with the race to the moon, the mission – during which American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met in space and shook hands for the first time – was primarily of political significance during a time of "détente," when Cold War tensions between the US and USSR relaxed. There were a number of side effects, too, both intended and unintended.

Among the intended side effects were the technical achievements of the project, which included the design and implementation of a common docking assembly that would allow Soviet and American vehicles to link up in space and allow humans to pass from one vehicle to another. Among the unintended effects was the solid friendship, based on professionalism and profound mutual respect, between Thomas Stafford, the commander of the US crew, and Aleksey Leonov, his counterpart on the Soviet side.

Following a trend set by moon flights following Apollo 11 (with the exception of the Apollo 13 life-or-death cliff-hanger), the American public largely ignored the joint flight of Apollo with Soyuz. Personally, I don't recall being aware of the flight at the time. If news coverage of the mission penetrated my consciousness at all, it was quickly forgotten in the humdrum routine of daily life.

And so it was that, the following year, I found myself shepherding a group of tourists from Canada at the Intourist Hotel in Moscow. Dinner was being cleared from the table, and my waiter, a fellow named Vova, was clearly excited about something.

"You seem in a happy mood," I said. "Is fortune smiling on your beloved Dynamo soccer team?"

"Oh, no," he said with a laugh as he picked up my dinner plate. "Haven't you heard?"

"Heard what?" I said.

"The American astronauts who flew with our cosmonauts last year are staying in the hotel," said Vova, punctuating his remark by pointing at the package of Apollo-Soyuz cigarettes that sat near my ashtray. While I may not have been aware of the flight back in the States, the event was such a big deal in the Soviet Union that I could not help but be aware of it since becoming my employer's Moscow representative.

"You're kidding!" I said.

"It's the truth!' said Vova. "They are here to visit the cosmonaut center and are staying in the hotel. They take their meals over there." Vova used his chin to point at a door that led to a private dining room.

A few minutes later, on impulse, I crossed the room and began to loiter near the door of room Vova had indicated. A minute or two later, a man wearing Western clothes came out of the room. I buttonholed him.

"Excuse me," I said, "but is it true that the Apollo crew is staying at the hotel?" I tried hard to put an "Aw, shucks, hail-fellow-American-well-met" tone in my voice.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact, the crew is staying here," said the man. "If you can wait a moment, I'll see what I can do." As he disappeared back into the room, I mused about how the man had cut to the chase and answered the question I had not gotten around to asking, of whether there was a chance I could meet the astronauts.

The door opened and the man motioned me inside. The room was dimly lit and almost empty. There were two other men in the room besides me and the man who had invited me in. They rose to greet me, and I was introduced to General Tom Stafford. The two other US astronauts, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, had already gone up to their rooms.

I had never met an astronaut in the flesh before, yet here I was, face-to-face with a man who had flown in space not just once, but several times. I was tongue-tied, but managed to stammer something mundane. General Stafford told me he was pleased to meet me, and shook my hand, whereupon the man who had ushered me into the room took me by the arm, pressed a Public Affairs package into my fingers and I shortly found myself back in the main dining room of the hotel. A photograph in that package, of the joint US-Soviet crew and autographed by all of the crewmembers, today remains a prized possession.

The next time I saw General Stafford was in my boss's office in the mid-1990s, after I had been hired as the program manager for the NASA contractor that provided Russian language services at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the course of our chat – Stafford's visit was of a social nature, as he and my boss had known each other for quite some time – I mentioned having met him that evening in 1976 at the Intourist, and described the circumstances of that meeting.

After hearing me out, Stafford smiled, and then apologized, saying that he didn't remember the meeting. "We met a lot of people in those days," said Stafford.

A few months later, I was interpreting for what was known at the time as the "Stafford-Utkin Safety Commission" (which has a much longer and more official name these days, but still concerns itself with safety issues). Over lunch one day, I mentioned my first meeting with General Stafford to one of the Russian members of the commission, himself a former cosmonaut. His eyebrows rose and his lips pursed for a second, and then he surprised me by asking "So now do you understand how you came to be where you are and are doing what you do?"

"You think my involvement with the space program is the result of that meeting?" I asked, in a skeptical voice.

"Oh, you might disagree completely," he said, "but the ranks of American specialists are filled with people like you who, at one time or another, met an astronaut in their youth." I remained unconvinced, and said so.

"Think what you like," said my interlocutor, stirring his coffee, "but then tell me that interpreting for petroleum geologists gives you as much pleasure, or that you understand other technical subjects as well as you do the workings of the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station."

As I weighed what I had heard, I looked over at a table where Stafford had paused to chat with other Russian members of the commission, and decided that, if my presence really was the result of that long-ago meeting, it had been a very fortunate turn of events for me, indeed.

* * *

Display devoted to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Gagarin Museum, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Display devoted to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project,
Gagarin Museum, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

* * *
My other topic entry for this week's LJ Idol is located here.


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