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U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Outer Space: From Yuri Gagarin to Apollo-Soyuz

Cold War Rivals Joined Forces after Historic Gagarin Flight in 1961 to Pursue Broader Shared Interests, Documents Show

Current Collaboration on International Space Station Has Its Roots in JFK-Khrushchev Meeting of Minds.

Washington, D.C., April 12, 2021 – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight 60 years ago, which made him the first human in space, prompted President John F. Kennedy to advance an unusual proposal – that the two superpowers combine forces to cooperate in space.  In a congratulatory letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive, Kennedy expressed the hope that “our nations [can] work together” in the “continuing quest for knowledge of outer space.”  

Kennedy’s letter is one of many records in the American and Russian archives that show that the two ideological rivals have not only engaged in a space race but have also cooperated for decades.  In fact, as the ongoing joint activities involving the International Space Station demonstrate, space has been one of the few spheres of collaboration that have survived the trials and tensions of the Cold War, keeping both countries engaged in constructive competition as well as in joint efforts to expand human frontiers.

Today’s posting begins a two-part series exploring this often-overlooked chapter in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia.  The materials in the first tranche cover events from Gagarin’s flight to the celebrated Apollo-Soyuz mission.  The second posting in early May will deal with the post-Cold War period.

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On April 12, 1961, the Vostok 1 rocket lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into history as the first human to reach outer space. The launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the success of Gagarin’s flight, showed the Soviet Union in the lead in the U.S.-Soviet Space Race. Historical memory in the United States and the Soviet Union in relation to space tends to focus on this competition between the two nations, with the events leading to the successes of Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Valentina Tereshkova, and Neil Armstrong among the best known results. Less discussed are the long years of cooperative efforts between the American and Soviet space programs, and then the American and Russian space programs that represented diplomatic and scientific successes in times of significant mutual distrust and tension.

Early efforts for space cooperation, and the continuation of cooperative programs, show the importance of scientific work as an avenue for constructive dialogue between adversarial states. Space cooperation provides nations that are unable for political reasons to work together on other issues the opportunity to pool resources and establish links between scientific communities that benefit scientific capabilities and human knowledge, as well as promote general relations between rivals. Today, as cooperative space efforts are faltering under once again worsening relations, it is instructive to return to these early efforts to remember that cooperation is not only possible, but mutually advantageous.

This post features documents sourced from presidential libraries, the online archives of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of State, and two translated documents from Russian archives. The documents in this post show the efforts that both sides put into working together, despite the tumultuous nature of U.S.-Soviet relations that had built up over the course of a lengthy ideological power struggle. In 1961, on the eve of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s launch, Soviet Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikita Khrushchev dictated a series of proposals for celebrations after the flight, and a message to be sent out around the world commemorating the achievement as both proof of the power of Marxist-Leninist teachings and an achievement for all of humanity (Document 1). Following Gagarin’s flight, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent a telegram to Khrushchev congratulating him on the program (Document 2). In the telegram, Kennedy also stated that it was his “sincere desire that in the continuing quest for knowledge of outer space our nations can work together to obtain the greatest benefit to mankind.” President Kennedy continued to pursue space cooperation with the Soviets in 1962 and 1963, as can be seen in a 1962 letter from President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev containing possibilities for cooperation (Document 3). Following the destabilizing events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, attempts to cooperate continued. A November 1962 telegram from Special Envoy Georgy K. Zhukov following his conversation with Presidential Advisor John J. McCloy shows the Kennedy administration’s attempts to mend the relationship, with space being mentioned as a possible area for cooperation (Document 4). In 1963, President Kennedy gave a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations suggesting a joint U.S.-Soviet lunar expedition (Document 5).

Cooperative efforts continued following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Progress in that area as well as “Soviet performance and attitudes thus far,” including in regard to a possible crewed lunar landing, are discussed in a series of letters between the Johnson White House and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) head James Webb (Document 6). The Johnson administration’s National Security Action Memorandum No. 285 on cooperation with the USSR on outer space matters and the Nixon administration’s National Security Decision Memorandum 70 on international space cooperation show the continuing high-level interest in cooperative efforts with the Soviet space program, both leading up to the moon landing and following it (Document 8 and 10).

Progress also continued on a more technical basis. Talks on data-sharing held by Hugh Dryden of NASA and Anatoly Blagonravov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences had led to an agreement in 1962 and open communication in the areas of space medicine and satellite meteorological data. Talks continued between the two scientists in 1964, resulting in a second Memorandum of Understanding and the continuation of the so-called Dryden-Blagonravov Agreement (Document 9).

In October 1971, the first meeting of the Joint US/ USSR Working Group on Space Biology and Medicine was held in Moscow, followed by another gathering the next year, which prompted a report in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Central Intelligence Bulletin on Soviet interest in NASA’s space suit technology (Document 11 and 12). President Richard Nixon, speaking to Soviet Academician Vadim Trapeznikov and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin, reaffirmed U.S. interest in cooperation, stating that “while science is not as spectacular as SALT [the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks], both are important and greatly affect what we can do in the future.” (Document 13)

The crowning achievement in space cooperation in the 1970s was the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), which involved the docking of the Soviet Soyuz capsule with the U.S. Apollo module. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in preparation for a 1974 meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko, noted the need to discuss further cooperative efforts after the completion of the ASTP (Document 14). President Gerald Ford met with the Soviet cosmonauts participating in ASTP in September 1974, describing the project as “an important step forward in U.S.-Soviet relations.” (Document 15) The astronauts and cosmonauts launched for the ASTP mission on July 15th, 1975, with President Ford wishing the participants luck in “opening a new era in the exploration of space.” (Document 16) Following the successful completion of ASTP, the astronauts and cosmonauts participated in joint tours of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev describing the participants as “messengers of good will representing the aspiration of the people of the two countries toward peaceful cooperation.” (Document 17)

Space cooperation remained seemingly untouched by the deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s; it continued even after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and walked out of all arms control negotiations in response to the first deployments of Pershing missiles in Europe.

The International Space Station of today is the result of these collaborative efforts that have their roots in the 1960s, were tested in the 1970s, and continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part II of this posting will focus on the period after the end of the Cold War and the challenges it faces today

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