Saturday, July 18, 2015

The 1975 U.S.–U.S.S.R. Handshake In Space

U.S.-Russia Relations

Meeting In The Middle: NASA writes: “Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975 during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) docking mission in Earth orbit.” O’Hare writes: “The idea originated at the UN and received a boost after 1971, when US president Richard Nixon and later his secretary of state Henry Kissinger were looking for projects to build the detente between the two countries. Two crews were selected: the Americans under the command of Thomas P. Stafford, the Russians under Alexei Leonov.”
Image Credit & Source: NASA


On July 17, 1975, high above the Earth, astronauts from the United States shook hands with cosmonauts from the Soviet Union in what became known as the “handshake in space.” The cold war was on, as was the proxy war in Vietnam, but this did not deter the leaders from the two nation—U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev—from cooperating, if only a little, on issues that both thought important.

The door to détente was opened slightly; and space exploration was an area in which both nations could find common agreement. I remember this handshake, this event in time, since I had an avid interest in all things to do with space, including the Space Race in particular and space exploration in general. I have had this interest since I was eight or nine, and it remains so almost 50 years later. Not surprising, my wife, who comes from Russia, had a similar interest when she was a young girl.

In an article (“Apollo–Soyuz: A cold war handshake in space, 40 years on”; July 17, 2015) in New Scientist, Mick O’Hare writes:
Everybody knows the space race was driven by cold war politics: without the Soviet Union and the US battling to outmanoeuvre each other, we wouldn’t have had Sputnik, Vostok or Apollo. But amid all the rhetoric and duplicity, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – a mission now almost forgotten – was able to unite the two space programmes via a brief window that opened in a wall of implacable ideological mistrust.
Today is the 40th anniversary of a key moment in the project, when capsules from both superpowers docked in orbit and their crews shook hands, exchanged gifts and then conducted experiments jointly. One of these involved positioning one spacecraft in the line with the sun to create a fake eclipse so they could take photos of the solar corona.
The project, which became known as “the handshake in space”, had seemed unachievable only a few years earlier during the Cuban missile crisis. How did it get off the ground?

“Both nations had lost astronauts and cosmonauts,” says Cathy Lewis, historian of international space programs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and the curator of its Apollo-Soyuz permanent exhibit, Space Race. “The death of the crew of Soyuz 11 returning from the Salyut 1 space station in 1971 prompted a consensus that both sides required some sort of rescue feasibility.”
The handshake might have then been considered symbolic, but the fact that it took place at all says much. Symbolism can, when the circumstances are right, lead to concrete positive measures. Waiting for the perfect political moment is like waiting for the perfect man or woman—it never happens. When opportunity for peace arrives, or the initial steps to pave the way for it presents itself, this ought to be taken.

For a noteworthy example, U.S. President John. F. Kennedy said the following in a 27-minute commencement speech at American University in Washington, D.C, on June 10, 1963:
While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can—if it is sufficiently effective in its enforcement and if it is sufficiently in the interests of its signers—offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race.

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough--more than enough--of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on--not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
The speech informed the public about negotiations with the Soviets, and showed the president mindful of such a strategy of peace. The negotiations were successful, and what followed was the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (August 5, 1963); many other such agreements followed between the two superpowers. No one here is arguing, for example, that relations today between the U.S. and Russia are ideal or that they do not need improving, but the two nations are talking and negotiating, which is always better than not doing so. Moreover, both nations are still cooperating on space missions for the International Space Station (ISS). Is not a cold peace always preferable to a cold war?

Hardliners, on the other hand, seem unwilling to negotiate anything, seeing any compromise as defeat of tradition and the old ways; perhaps hardliners view compromise as a personal defeat. Perhaps it comes from having a short short view of history, which in the end is the same old story full of heroic battles, sacrifices and, most of all, missed opportunities. Progressives hold another view of history and often see opportunity as the lever of change, especially if the change leads to the lessening of hostilities, peaceful coexistence and improved conditions for humanity.

This is why we labor toward a strategy of peace.

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For more, go to [NewScientist]

For a full transcript of President Kennedy’s speech, go to [JFKLibrary]

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