United States-Soviet Space Cooperation during the Cold War

    By Roald Sagdeev, University of Maryland, and Susan Eisenhower, The Eisenhower Institute

    Russian space scientist Roald Z. Sagdeev spent a large part of his career viewing NASA from the Soviet Union’s side of the Cold War divide. Sagdeev, the former head of the Russian Space Research Institute, now is the director of the University of Maryland’s East-West Space Science Center. He wrote this essay with his wife, Susan Eisenhower (President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter) that traces the long, hard path to space cooperation until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.

    East-West team - Left: Dr. Roald Sagdeev with the engineering model of the Vega 2 Halley’s comet probe (1986) at Moscow’s Space Research Institute. Photo credit: Jonathan Blair/CORBISThe Space Age spawned two outstanding space programs as a result of the hot competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries gave primary emphasis in their space efforts to a combination of national security and foreign policy objectives, turning space into an area of active competition for political and military advantage. At first, this charged political environment accommodated nothing more than symbolic gestures of collaboration. Only in the late 1980s, with warming political relations, did momentum for major space cooperation begin to build. As the Soviet Union neared collapse, with its ideological underpinnings evaporating, the impetus for the arms race and competition in space declined, allowing both countries to seriously pursue strategic partnerships in space.

    The bumpy U.S.-U.S.S.R. relationship in the years between 1957 and 1991 often was characterized by periods of mistrust and overt hostility (e.g., the U-2 incident, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Ronald Reagan’s depiction of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”). Periods of détente, in contrast, led to the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in 1963, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972, and an emerging U.S.-Soviet rapprochement during 1985-1991. Throughout this political roller-coaster period of history, both countries increased areas of coop-eration, including space, as a symbol of warmer relations while cutting cooperation off when ties worsened.

    The birth of the Space Age following the Soviet launch of Sputnik came out of the confluence of two seemingly incompatible developments. From the end of World War II, the Soviets made rockets their most important military asset. By the mid-1950s, they were ready to test their first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In 1957, the International Geophysical Year was launched, a multinational effort to study Earth on a comprehensive, coordinated basis. To highlight the effort, organizers had urged the United States and the Soviet Union to consider launching a scientific satellite. On Oct. 4, 1957, a seemingly routine test launch of a Soviet ICBM (now known as the R-7 rocket) carried the first artificial satellite to orbit.

    Susan EisenhowerSputnik’s launch had dramatic repercussions for the Cold War rivals. After reaping the first political dividends from military rocket technology, the Soviets continued to pursue a highly classified military-industrial approach in developing its space program. Conversely, the U.S. government decided to make NASA a purely civilian enterprise, while focusing its military space efforts in the Pentagon and intelligence community.

    Early on, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pursued U.S.-Soviet cooperative space initiatives through a series of letters he sent in 1957 and 1958 to the Soviet leadership, first to Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin and then to Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Eisenhower suggested creating a process to secure space for peaceful uses. Khrushchev, however, rejected the offer and demanded the United States eliminate its forward-based nuclear weapons in places like Turkey as a precondition for any space agreement. Feeling triumphant after Sputnik’s launch, Khrushchev was certain his country was far ahead of the United States in terms of rocket technology and space launch capabilities, unlike the Soviet Union’s more vulnerable geostrategic position in the nuclear arena. This would be the first of many times when space was linked with nuclear disarmament and other political issues.

    Hands across the divide - Cosmonaut Valery Kubasov signs the official joint certificate marking the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft linkup (July 17, 1975), while astronaut Deke Slayton (hand with watch) helps steady the document.Meanwhile, the United States energetically proceeded with its multinational initiative under the umbrella of the United Nations to develop a legal framework for peaceful space activities. This eventually led to the Outer Space Treaty and creation of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which a reluctant Soviet Union eventually joined.

    In the scientific community, the role of an international space science union was assumed by the Committee on Space Research, with its unusual charter giving a mandate to both superpowers to appoint vice presidents. This arrangement opened an opportunity for dialogue and informal contacts between American and Soviet space officials. Academician Anatoli A. Blagonravov, the Soviet Union’s representative for negotiating multilateral space science cooperation agreements, became the group’s first appointed vice president. However, nothing could happen in the body without Kremlin approval.

    I vividly remember a farewell conversation with Blagonravov, when he was preparing to retire from the Soviet space program. Blagonravov, an outstanding artillery engineer and general of the prerevolutionary Russian army who managed to survive during the Soviet regime, strongly advised me to keep the committee link alive. That would require a lot of domestic diplomacy, he thought. Indeed, my very first hurdle was to persuade the Kremlin not to kill Soviet participation in the 1977 conference in Tel Aviv, Israel.

    The civilian nature of NASA, legislated in the 1958 Space Act, made it possible for the American researchers to collaborate on and disseminate scientific advances, an opportunity envied by many of us Soviet scientists. The actual work and industrial efforts for the Soviet space program were run under the classified umbrella of the Ministry of General Machine Building, with its enormous and rapidly expanding network of design bureaus and production facilities. The military was its principal client. The military also owned and operated every launch site and the network of ground control centers. The ministry had to report to the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Commission on Military-Industrial Issues of the Council of Ministers. Work beyond defense contracts was given secondary priority.

    As a result of this critical dependence on the military, the Soviet aerospace industry relied entirely on domestic hardware, all the way down to the tiniest individual micro-components. This resulted in an internationally isolated technological culture that would have created enormous barriers of incompatibility for any joint endeavor.

    Cold War summit - During their Vienna summit (June 4, 1961), President John F. Kennedy discussed possible space cooperation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Photo credit: AP/Wide World PhotoIn April 1960, in advance of a planned Eisenhower-Khrushchev sum-mit meeting, the leadership of Moscow’s scientific community was anticipating a chance for major breakthroughs in bilateral cooperation, perhaps including the space area, following Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. However, the much expected summit was cancelled in the aftermath of the May 1 downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. I was beginning my scientific career at the heart of the Soviet nuclear establishment, now known as the Kurchatov Institute, and was very disappointed Eisenhower would not be visiting the institute as had been rumored.

    Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy made repeated attempts to engage the Soviet Union in space cooperation. In his inaugural address, Kennedy said, “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars.’’ Khrushchev, still persuaded of the eternal supremacy of Soviet rocketry, was not moved. Less than three months after Kennedy’s inauguration, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to escape Earth’s gravity. In the aftermath of his brief flight, the piloted component of the Soviet space program rapidly grew to become indisputably dominant over any other type of space activity. Official Soviet propaganda was obsessed with everything that happened in orbit, including elaborate descriptions of the cosmonauts’ menu at their last breakfast and all of the details of their physical exercise program. Every launch produced several more “Heroes of the Soviet Union,” and more photographs of space superstars embraced by Khrushchev. At the same time, the Soviets were left far behind in other key areas of space technology. Their first geostationary telecommunication satellite was launched 11 years after its American counterpart. In the case of getting meteorological data from a geostationary location, the gap was even bigger.

    Despite the continued space competition between the United States and U.S.S.R., Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter raising the possibility of space cooperation on a modest level after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. That led to two rounds of discussions between NASA’s Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden and Soviet academician Blagonravov. An agreement led to the opening of cooperation in three areas: 1) the exchange of weather data from satellites and the eventual coordinated launching of meteorological satellites; 2) a joint effort to map the geomagnetic field of Earth; and 3) cooperation in the experimental relay of communications. This link became a primary forum for subsequent U.S.-U.S.S.R. interaction on space.

    Unrealized ambition - Model of the Soviets’ Almaz (“Diamond”) space station. This program of the Soviets’ Ministry of Defense, meant as a response to the U.S. Air Force’s short-lived Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, was hampered by technical and funding problems and infighting within the Soviet space program. Photo credit: NASA/ Dietrich HaeselerThere were large differences between the two negotiating partners. The Soviet Academy of Sciences did not run the space program, but rather served as an official front for a vast network of secret enterprises controlled by the military and Communist Party apparatus. An asymmetry existed also in the fact that while the Russians knew about the American planning process, everything about the Soviet space program was a classified secret. In meetings among scientists, we often were approached by our colleagues at NASA asking us to disclose plans about what we were going to do next with Mars, Venus and other planets. It was difficult to persuade our Soviet authorities, including the president of the Academy of Sciences, academician Mstislav Keldysh, that we should reciprocate. The Soviet system had a different culture and mentality. Academician Keldysh himself was the subject of paranoid secrecy. For many years, Keldysh’s name was a state secret. He was known only as the anonymous “chief theorist of cosmonautics.” Sergei Korolev, the founder of the Soviet space and rocketry program, was less fortunate. His role as “chief designer of cosmonautics” became official only posthumously.

    Following the ouster of Khrushchev in October 1964, the new Soviet leadership of Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues took even a harder line toward overall U.S.-Soviet relations. Brezhnev previously had served as the curator of the military industry on behalf of the Politburo. He knew well there was a “missile gap” in favor of the United States, and he was about to embark on an unprecedented build up of deterrent forces. The negative atmosphere at higher levels was reflected in the Soviet academy’s dealings with NASA. Soviet opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam led to more bitterness.

    In December 1968, only weeks after Richard Nixon’s election, Apollo 8 orbited the moon, followed by the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union experienced a series of failures in its manned lunar program. The opportunity for using dramatic space cooperation efforts as a means of reducing the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry had passed. As painful as it was for the Soviet leadership, the time of their country’s dominance in heavy rocket launching technology was over. Cooperation in space now would have to come at more modest levels. The triumph of the Apollo program signified a crucial benchmark in the superpower space race by ending Soviet leadership in space exploration. The Soviet Union was simply unable to match such large-scale U.S. efforts. Nor did the Soviets have an institutional structure like NASA that was capable of running a program like Apollo in an open and transparent way. While not ready to publicly admit their defeat, the Soviets argued that scientific work on the moon could be better achieved robotically. Unmanned Soviet lunar missions, initially introduced as a shadow program with a much smaller budget than the manned version, occurred at the same time as the Apollo program. The Lunokhod moon rovers and sample return probes earned a great deal of admiration from international scientists. However, inside their close circle, the Soviet leaders, in a rude awakening, conceded that the era of Soviet dominance in space was gone forever. Cynics in the Soviet space community added an insult to the injury in the form of a “bad news, good news” joke drawing on a growing irritant for Kremlin – rapidly deteriorating relations with China. According to the joke, the bad news was, “The Chinese have landed on the moon. So what is the good news? It’s all of them.”

    Détente in space - After linking up in orbit, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project astronauts Thomas Stafford and Deke Slayton greet Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (July 17, 1975).The challenge for both sides was determining where to go next. While the Americans eventually pursued the development of the space shuttle, the Soviets embarked on a program to place crews in space for extended periods of time by building the Salyut series of orbital space stations.

    In reality, that space station program was not the result of major brainstorming or serious debates about a new national vision for space exploration. It came from the spontaneous process of internal competition between rivals within the Soviet aerospace industry. The Soviet military initially supported the approach, which was reminiscent of the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory project, which was canceled in 1969 after a single, unmanned launch. Reflecting military priorities, the key instrument on early Salyut stations was a big optical Earth observation camera, the Soviet version of “open skies” technology. Of course, official propaganda said this mission had nothing to do with military interests. However, sharp tongues inside the space establishment jokingly asked, “Why do these brave men in orbit sleep when flying over our country, but stay alert over America?”

    After this type of assignment was passed to unmanned spy satellites, the real motivation for expanding the Salyut program became the desire to undertake long-duration flight. Longevity records for humans in space became the benchmark for judging the success of these flights. In order to move in that direction, the Salyut program worked to excel in two important areas: achieving the safety of its manned flight hardware and developing a solid base in space medicine. Eventually, these would be two of the most important contributions the Russians would make to the International Space Station partnership.

    In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration sought to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions, and launched a major effort to reach a strategic arms limitation breakthrough, as well as new cooperation in space. In 1970, during a meeting with Keldysh, U.S. Academy of Sciences President Philip Handler mentioned an American movie starring Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman called Marooned, in which Soviet cosmonauts helped rescue three U.S. astronauts stranded in Earth orbit. Handler suggested the United States and U.S.S.R. develop a mutually com-patible docking system that would make possible such rescues, as well as non-emergency space dock-ings. This imaginary movie scenario touched a chord within space communities on both sides, which already had experienced emergency situations in real life. Talks led to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking mission of 1975, which developed compatible rendezvous and docking systems still in use today, and the establishment of a few topical working groups in different space science and applications disciplines.

    Implementation of Apollo-Soyuz cooperation was dictated by the political will of the two countries’ political leadership. The cooperation presented a serious management challenge for both sides, given the overall lack of compatibility between the two space programs. NASA had to work with a counterpart that could not even be clearly identified. The Ministry of General Machine Building was still shrouded in secrecy and Soviet authorities instructed the Academy of Sciences to act as a cover for all activities during Apollo-Soyuz. Soviet industry experts had to introduce themselves as employees of the Institute of Space Research and military officers from Soviet Space Command changed into civilian clothes while insisting that the Soviet academy administered the launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

    The huge Soviet space military-industrial “iceberg” at that time could find only a tiny place at the tip of this colossus to deal with foreign visitors. Even if the Institute of Space Research was unable from a practical standpoint to serve as the sole counterpart to NASA’s Apollo team, we were given instructions to at least pretend. We had to puff up our chests and represent the heart of the Soviet space program while it was clear to everyone that we were nothing but a bunch of scientists – the poor relatives of the rich space czars.

    Pre-launch get-together - Crew members of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project at the Kennedy Space Center. From left are astronauts Vance Brand and Thomas Stafford, cosmonauts Aleksei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov, and astronaut Deke Slayton.Well before the critical moments of the Apollo-Soyuz project when the crowds of American participants went to visit the manned flights control center in the Moscow suburb of Kaliningrad and the Soyuz launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, our authorities issued a long and detailed secret questionnaire. It suggested the appropriate answers to hundreds of questions that might be asked by the “nosy Americans.” The reading of this questionnaire at a board of directors meeting brought great fun and pride to us. These were some of the questions:

    “The imaginary American asks at the control center of Kaliningrad, ‘Who is essentially running this installation?’ Or a similar question at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where military servicemen would have most probably just changed their uniforms for civilian clothes: ‘Who is responsible for supervising and running this Cosmodrome?’ We were very excited to respond to these queries. The recommended answer was always ‘the Institute of Space Research and academician Sagdeev.’”

    I felt like the Marquis de Carabas from Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, Puss in Boots – the apparent “owner of all the territory the eye could see.”

    Despite this artifice, the docking in orbit in July 1975 was a rare and dramatic display of U.S.-Soviet friendliness during the depths of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford exchanged messages of friendship and congratulations. This was to be the last dramatic international handshake in space for years to come. Soon after the flight, both sides met to discuss potential follow-on space projects and agreed to establish a special bilateral working group. I chaired the Soviet group and worked with NASA’s Charles Kennel on a scenario in which a specialized science module, a blend of Russian and American station designs, could be delivered to orbit by the U.S. space shuttle. Unfortunately, politics intervened again. Incoming President Jimmy Carter was concerned by congressional charges that the Soviets had obtained valuable U.S. technology during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. By late 1978, the Carter administration had ended discussions on additional cooperation with the Soviets. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, any hope of significant cooperation in space was gone. The United States pursued cooperation with Europe through projects such as a Spacelab module that could ride aboard the space shuttle, while the Soviets maintained their focus on flying the manned Salyut space stations.

    Science over politics - Images from the surface of Venus taken by the Soviets’ Venera 13 lander (March 1, 1982). The surface composition is similar to terrestrial basalt.On the planetary exploration front, we were quite impressed by the successes of the Mars Viking missions and the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the outer limits of the solar system. At the same time the principal Soviet robotic missions were repeatedly directed toward Venus.

    Every year as director of the Soviet Space Research Institute, I had to report on the completion of each important mission to a very large audience in Moscow at the Polytechnic Museum, which is a counterpart to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Each time, while learning about the new steps in a deeper penetration into the mysteries of Venus, my audience would ask, “While we keep sending spacecraft to Venus only, the American spacecraft visit Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and so on. Why couldn’t we have such projects?”

    “You know,” I responded, “we have a silent gentleman’s agreement to share responsibilities in space. While the Americans are doing wide-range reconnaissance in the solar system, we are carrying on an intensive study of Venus, just as if that planet were declared the planetary test range of our space science.” At another meeting, while reporting on the latest Venera spacecraft landing on the surface of Venus, I had to confront the same questions. This time, I was literally bewildered and without much thinking, immediately answered the question of why Americans do such and such:

    “Because they are sons of bitches,” I replied.

    For several minutes, the audience gave a standing ovation. It was clear they were applauding the Americans and their space program, which had captured the imagination of the Soviets, despite the attempts of our official propaganda to undermine the achievements of those “sons of bitches.”

    Nevertheless, the Soviet robotic space program advanced by learning from and adapting to U.S. achievements. Anticipating the success of the U.S. Viking mission, the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided to abandon Mars as a priority and see how the American program would develop. The open and predictable nature of the U.S. space program gave Soviet scientists an opportunity to find their own niche with realistic projects that would have a scientific impact and avoid direct competition.

    Our Venera program to Venus was quite successful. Following simplistic probes in the late 1960s, we managed to deliver sophisticated hardware to the planet’s surface in 1975 and send back panoramic pictures. Because the United States and U.S.S.R. agreed to share the results of NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in 1978 and the Soviet Venera missions, scientists and space experts on both sides placed enormous symbolic and scientific value on the results of these joint efforts.

    Ultraviolet view of Venus’ cloudy face taken by NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter (Feb. 11, 1979). The United States and U.S.S.R. agreed to share results from both the Venera 13 and Pioneer missions.U.S.-Soviet cooperation in life sciences and biomedical research also took root in the 1970s. In 1977, seven U.S. biological experiments or medical devices flew aboard the Soviet Cosmos 936 mission, which also carried experiments from France and a number of Soviet bloc countries. This mission investigated the impact of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. A later Cosmos mission, Cosmos 1129 in 1979, carried 17 additional U.S. experiments and devices. And on May 6, 1979, the United States and U.S.S.R signed a treaty that provided for the deployment of an international system of emergency beacon receivers aboard satellites.

    When Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in 1981, Cold War tensions were rising. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, imposition of martial law in Poland and NATO’s placement of Pershing rockets and cruise missiles in Europe – which was countered by hurried deployment of the Soviets’ SS-20 medium-range nuclear missiles – characterized the tenor of the period. In the midst of the Poland martial law crisis, the Reagan administration announced on Dec. 29, 1981, that it would allow the U.S.-Soviet space cooperation agreement, due for renewal in May 1982, to lapse. Mutual suspicion grew to the point that the Soviets began attributing potentially aggressive intentions to the Space Shuttle Program. It would be another 10 years before the conditions finally were ripe again for cooperation.

    Nevertheless, in the absence of a formal intergovernmental agreement, the White House authorized low-profile cooperation on a case-by-case basis. Among the activities that continued were the satellite-based search and rescue efforts, which was based on the coordinated use of the U.S.-Canadian-French SARSAT and the Soviet COSPAS satellites to locate airplanes or ships in distress. By the mid-1980s, the effort had helped save more than 400 people. NASA also was allowed to continue working with the Soviet Union in space biology and medicine. As part of that effort, four U.S. medical devices were used in experiments on the 1983 Cosmos 1514 mission, which was devoted to primate research. That tacit format of interaction led by Soviet academicians Oleg Gazenko and Anatoly Grigoriev and NASA’s Dr. Arnauld Nicogossian, later would serve as an example for future cooperation between the Russian space station Mir and space shuttle programs and on the International Space Station. Meanwhile, exchanges of planetary data continued, but discussions of future cooperation in planetary exploration were cancelled.

    The U.S. side was pragmatic about keeping up its contacts with Soviet scientists during these times times of political tensions. Regular consultations on space science-related issues, for example, were carried out through a channel between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Americans were keenly interested in learning about the effects of long-duration flights on the human body – an area where the Soviets enjoyed a monopoly during NASA’s six-year hiatus in human spaceflight from 1975-1981.

    Artist’s impression of the Giotto spacecraft approaching Halley’s comet. The 1986 mission involved Soviet and European Space Agency spacecraft, with active involvement of NASA. Photo credit: European Space AgencyIn addition to these cooperative activities, Soviet and American space scientists regularly met at Committee on Space Research sessions. Aerospace engineers and officials from industry also maintained a similar engagement under the umbrella of the International Astronautical Federation.

    During what many would consider the coldest period of bilateral relations in the early 1980s, these contacts produced a very special cooperative project that sought to explore Halley’s comet. The United States and U.S.S.R. both participated in the Interagency Consultative Group, which was set up in 1981 to bring together space and ground-based studies of the comet during its 1986 passage through the inner solar system.

    After deciding not to send a spacecraft to view the comet, the United States agreed to play a supporting role, which involved providing ground-based observation data on the comet. This data was used to support the parallel Soviet Vega 1, Vega 2 and European Space Agency Giotto missions. The success of the encounter with the comet was to be critically dependent on precise navigation. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, suggested a brilliant technical scenario for the Vega and Giotto spacecraft to use at the approach to the comet. This had to be done a few days prior to the arrival of Giotto in order to help it home in on the celestial whereabouts of the ultimate target: the comet’s elusive nucleus. The whole procedure required close cooperation in real time. NASA’s Deep Space Network was given all of the necessary parameters from the Soviet spacecraft communications systems, then both sides performed pre-flight calibration tests of the hardware. This helped Giotto navigate much closer to the comet’s nucleus, providing scientists with outstanding data and producing some of the most awe-inspiring video footage ever taken in space. Several months before, when the Soviet Vega spacecraft had to release meteorological ballons in the atmosphere of Venus, the Deep Space Network played a crucial role in getting the first direct signals from these balloons and continued to track them as they were buffeted by Venus’ unusual atmospheric circulation.

    Ironically, such successes were achieved despite continued chilly relations between the two governments. Several private groups, however, worked to keep U.S.-Soviet space ties alive. Among them was the new Planetary Society, which was created in 1979 by well-known astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Bruce Murray, and their associate, physicist Louis Friedman. After its founding in 1985, the Association of Space Explorers, composed of people who had flown in space, also became an important forum for discussions on the benefits of U.S.-Soviet cooperation in human spaceflight. These efforts would provide a powerful impetus for getting stalled U.S.-Soviet space cooperation back on track.

    Not long after Ronald Reagan was elected president, NASA urged him to approve a space station to rival the Soviet station program. In his January 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan announced he was directing NASA to “develop a permanently manned space station … within the decade” and “invite other countries to participate.” Peggy Finarelli, a senior official in NASA’s international office at the time, recalled that Reagan’s approval of what became known as Space Station Freedom was “a leadership issue very much in the context of the Cold War. We were challenging the Soviets in the high ground of space. We had to say that Freedom would be bigger and better than the Soviet space station.” The original estimate was that Freedom would cost about $8 billion. It was envisioned to be in orbit by 1992 in order to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

    Shuttle-Mir hookup The space shuttle Atlantis (STS-71) connected to Russia’s Mir space station, photographed by the Mir-19 crew (July 4, 1995).While the Soviets were not invited to join the Freedom project, the Reagan administration indicated its willingness to resume space cooperation with the U.S.S.R. prior to the 1984 State of the Union address. Only days before the speech, the administration privately suggested to Moscow a simulated space rescue demonstration mission in which U.S. astronauts from the space shuttle would assist Soviet cosmonauts aboard a Salyut station. Both privately and publicly, the Soviet response was cool, because of the perceived asymmetry of a mission in which the Soviet crew was in trouble and the U.S. crew would act as rescuers.

    The Soviet government also revived the notion from the Khrushchev era that space cooperation would be possible only if there were progress in space arms control. The primary point of contention was the Reagan administration’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which had been announced in March 1983. From the start of the Reagan administration, however, pressure for cooperation in space had been mounting. For example, Sen. “Spark” Matsunaga from Hawaii was among those warning of the dangers of weaponizing space and calling for an “internationally developed space station as an alternative.”

    The U.S. Senate issued a more formal call for renewal of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation with passage of Joint Resolution 236 on Oct. 10, 1984. President Reagan signed the resolution on Oct. 30, noting U.S. readiness “to work with the Soviets on cooperation in space in pro-grams which are mutually beneficial and productive.”

    When Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the Soviet leader in 1985, Reagan thought he had found a willing partner. Gorbachev was interested in reducing the Soviet defense budget, and with the so-called Euromissile issue still unresolved, his government quickly signaled its readiness for a new round of arms control negotiations with the United States. When Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva that November to discuss arms control, they also signed an agreement on scientific cooperation. Once again, cooperation was symbolic of a thaw in the Cold War. However, Gorbachev still expressed strong Soviet opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative and space was not included in the agreement. The Soviets had linked space cooperation to a demand that the United States abandon its plans for the initiative altogether.

    Team photo Members of the STS-114 and Expedition 11 crews in the International Space Station’s Destiny Laboratory (July 2006). From the left (front row) are astronauts Andrew Thomas, Eileen Collins, cosmonaut Sergei Kriklev (Expedition 11) and astronaut John Phillips (Expedition 11). From the left (back row) are astronauts Soichi Noguchi (Japan), James Kelly, Charlie Camardo, Wendy Lawrence and Stephen Robinson.Only three months after the Geneva summit, a tragedy occurred that would set the U.S. space program back several years – the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Little noticed at the time was a diplomatic breakthrough that occurred only a few weeks after the Challenger accident. On Feb. 20, 1986, the Soviets launched the first of six modules that eventually would comprise the Mir space station, and in the wake of the Challenger accident and the launch of Mir, the Kremlin finally agreed to decouple non-military space issues from the Strategic Defense Initiative. The United States and the Soviet Union subsequently signed a five-year agreement on space cooperation in April 1987. A number of joint scientific projects were agreed to, although there was no mention of cooperation in human spaceflight. More importantly, in an exchange of letters between Gorbachev and Reagan the previous summer, the link between arms control progress and renewed space cooperation was dropped. This paved the way for both sides to take meaningful steps toward actual cooperation.

    During their last Moscow summit in May 1988, Gorbachev invited Reagan to walk inside the Kremlin yard. Passing by impressive historic artifacts like the “Czar Cannon” that never fired, and the “Czar Bell,” that never tolled, the last Soviet president tried to lure his guest into agreeing to support a joint manned mission to Mars. Only time will tell if this project will come to pass or serve as another dead artifact of history.

    Professor John Logsdon from George Washington University also contributed to this article.