The Spacecraft Tarot: Apollo-Soyuz

Tippy Ki Yay
7 min readFeb 14, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Lovers share harmony.

The Lovers can refer to a romantic relationship, but they can also refer to any type cohesive partnership. Whether it be a business relationship, a close friendship, or two former Cold War rivals casting aside former hostilities to advance space exploration, the Lovers remind us of the importance of commitment. Commitment to any partnership strengthens the possibility of it being successful.

During the “Space Race,” the idea of the United States and Soviet Union ever joining a partnership together seemed nothing short of fantasy. Although no direct confrontation ever took place during the Cold War, each rival competed fiercely with one another to demonstrate to the world who was the most technologically advanced, and therefore superior, nation.

During the first part of the Space Race, the Soviet Union appeared to be “winning.” Just a couple of years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit with Sputnik I in 1957, their teams accomplished another groundbreaking milestone with Yuri Gagarin’s first crewed spaceflight in 1961. However, despite the Soviet Union’s early accomplishments, their “winning” streak eventually ended after a number of failed missions. NASA overtook its opponent.

Just as President John F. Kennedy had promised in 1961 to a joint session of Congress, NASA succeeded in landing the first astronauts on the Moon before the decade was out. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the Moon.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module is photographed from the Command and Service Modules during rendezvous in lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA

The race to the Moon was considered the most important accomplishment of the time — but the Soviet Union was not bitter. In fact, the Soviet Union was one of many nations to offer its congratulations to NASA, which proved to be the beginning of a slow process to smooth over past hostilities and broaden the possibility of a future partnership.

Over the next couple of years, the United States and the Soviet Union continued to cultivate their accomplishments in space. NASA pulled off six Moon landings between 1969 and 1972, and both world powers launched space stations: the Russian Salyut and the American Skylab. With tensions easing between the two nations, the next logical step was to figure out how to build the future of spaceflight together.

President Nixon and Chairman Kosygin sign the Space Cooperation Agreement in 1972. Image Credit: NASA

In May 1972, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union met in Moscow to officially move in that direction. President Richard Nixon and Chairman Aleksey Kosygin signed an Agreement on Cooperation in the Exploration and the Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, and as a part of that agreement, the two organizations began collaboration on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Apollo-Soyuz aspired to accomplish something that had never been done before — to dock two entirely different types of spacecraft, from two entirely different nations, in space. The intention was to test the compatibility of different docking systems, should an international space rescue ever be needed.

The joint U.S.- Soviet Union crew for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project pose for a portrait. Image Credit: NASA

Teams merged to design a compatible docking system that would connect an Apollo spacecraft with a Soyuz spacecraft. NASA astronauts Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand would launch across the world from cosmonauts Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov. Among the differences to be reconciled between the two teams, an obvious language barrier made communication initially challenging. Both the Americans and the Soviets had to learn each other’s languages and travel to each other’s countries in order to prepare for the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

In addition, the entire philosophy of spacecraft design had been developed independently of one another. The Apollo and Soyuz vehicles operated at different cabin pressures and atmospheric compositions. Each spacecraft would need to undergo major modifications in order to dock with one another.

Teams conduct a docking test of the docking module with the command module for the Apollo-Soyuz mission at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image Credit: NASA

Both the early designs of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft had suffered catastrophic failures. The Apollo 1 fire and the Soyuz 1 disaster ended with the loss of astronaut lives. The Apollo 13 mission was considered a “successful failure,” because even though the spacecraft suffered a major malfunction, teams on the ground and in flight managed to return home safely. In order to ensure the survival of the Apollo-Soyuz crew, the Soviet and NASA teams would have to agree to compromises within their different engineering approaches and create compatible hardware.

Engineers designed a docking module that served as both an airlock and a transfer tunnel to allow the crew members from each spacecraft to visit the other. Soviet teams of scientists, engineers, and astronauts arrived to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to conduct compatibility tests in early 1975, marking the first time that Soviet specialists had worked at the center with their American counterparts. When not completing tests, the Soviet team members enjoyed time at Disney World. When the astronauts and cosmonauts trained together at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, the crew members also enjoyed barbeque and attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo together.

The Apollo-Soyuz crewmembers (left to right) Stafford, Slayton,
Leonov, and Kubasov practice food preparation in a Soyuz spacecraft mockup
during a training session at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Image Credit: NASA

Following their training together in Houston, it was the American’s turn to travel to the Soviet Union. The crews spent their time training and visiting various sites of cultural and professional significance, such as the Soviet mission control center, the assembly building known by its Russian acronym MIK, and Leninsk, the town that supported the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Soviet and American teams enjoyed their cultural exchanges with what was up until recently, their sworn enemy. But after breaking bread and visiting each other’s homelands, each side came to learn that they had a lot more in common with each other than they thought. At the end of the day, they realized that they were all just human beings: they experienced deep love for their families. They took pride in their background and their heritage. And they enjoyed good food with good friends.

The Saturn IB rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on July 15, 1975. Image Credit: NASA

Finally, launch day arrived. On July 15, 1975, two spacecraft launched from two different locations, 7,000 miles apart from one another. Cosmonauts Leonov and Kubasov launched from Launch Pad 1 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, also known as Gagarin Start after the site of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight 14 years earlier.

Seven and a half hours later, NASA astronauts Stafford, Slayton, and Brand launched from Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center.

Simultaneously, cosmonauts Pyotr Klimuk and Vitali Sevastyanov were nearing the completion of their two-month stay aboard the Salyut-4 space station. With the launch of Apollo-Soyuz, the seven people now in space tied the previous record for the most people in space at one time. Klimuk said, “These are the magnificent seven.”

An image of Soyuz and Apollo docked together, as seen from inside Apollo. Image Credit: NASA

Two days after launch, on July 17, 1975, the Apollo and Soyuz docked together in Earth’s orbit. The crew members from each side opened the hatch to the docking module and met at the interface. Leonov and Stafford shook hands between the hatch that had previously separated two different spacecraft, from two different world powers. The historic handshake became a symbol of hope for a new world order. The former rivalry proved that they could enjoy a cooperative partnership in space.

The Apollo-Soyuz crew exchanged many gifts, including flags, a plaque that was pieced together from the two different parties, and formal certificates to authenticate the first international docking in space. Leonov gave the Americans sketches he had drawn of them during their joint training sessions. In addition to giving Leonov a box of superior spruce tree seeds prepared by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Service, Stafford played for his crew members a recorded version of country music star Conway Twitty’s “Hello, Darlin’” sang in Russian, entitled “Privet Radost.”

Astronauts Stafford and Slayton holding up tubes borsch and blackcurrant juice mislabeled as vodka. Image Credit: NASA

When the crew came together for their first meal together aboard the Soyuz, Leonov surprised the astronauts with tubes of borsch and blackcurrant juice mislabeled as vodka and offering a toast. During one of their televised sessions, when asked about eating American food, Leonov replied, “The best part of a good dinner is not what you eat, but with whom you eat.”

Although it would be two decades until NASA and the Soviet Union paired up again for the Shuttle-Mir program, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project demonstrated what was possible when the world worked together. Today, the legacy of Apollo-Soyuz lives on with the success of the International Space Station, which is shared not only by Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, but spaceflight participants from all over the world.

The Lovers teach us that we are more than the sum of our parts. Even war-torn rivals can learn how to throw down their arms and make peace for the greater good. Cooperation, compromise, and consideration are the keys to a successful partnership. We are stronger together.

Astronaut Slayton embraces cosmonaut Leonov. Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.