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This date in science: America and Russia meet in space

On July 17, 1975, a famous first handshake between nations in space.

July 17, 1975. On this date, Soviets and Americans accomplished the first joint space docking between two nations in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It marked the cooling of a long era of tense relations between the two world superpowers. Russian Soyuz and American Apollo flights launched within seven-and-a-half hours of each other on July 15, and docked on July 17. Three hours later, the world watched on television as the two mission commanders, Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov, exchanged the first international handshake in space through the open hatch of the Soyuz.

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. This picture was reproduced from a frame of 16mm motion picture film.  Image via NASA.

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. This picture was reproduced from a frame of 16mm motion picture film. Image via NASA.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project worked, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Engineers on the ground had to work hard to make the two spacecraft compatible. Meanwhile, the astronauts and cosmonauts from both countries learned about each other’s language and procedures. Because of Stafford’s pronounced drawl when speaking Russian, Leonov later joked that there were three languages spoken on the mission: Russian, English, and “Oklahomski.”

The two craft spent 44 hours docked together, in a mission that brought about increased technical and scientific collaboration between the two formerly opposing nations. Later, several American space shuttles docked with the Soviet space station Mir, which remained in orbit after the Soviet Union fell.

President Richard Nixon (seated at left) and Premier Alexei Kosygin sign the Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Cooperation in the Fields of Science and Technology; which included the agreement governing the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project. The agreement was signed during the bilateral summit in Moscow, May 24, 1972.  Image via NASA.

On May 24, 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon (l) and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin signed an agreement to pave the way for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project,. The agreement marked a softening of political tensions between the two nations, but formidable engineering tasks lay ahead. In 1975, the docking between Soviet and American spacecraft was an engineering triumph. Image via NASA.

Today, the two countries work together routinely on International Space Station research and maintenance.

Bottom line: The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project reached its dramatic climax on July 17, 1975, when Soviets and Americans accomplished the first joint space docking between two nations. It marked the cooling of a long era of tense relations between the two world superpowers. Russian Soyuz and American Apollo flights launched within seven-and-a-half hours of each other on July 15, and docked on July 17. Three hours later, the world watched on television as the two mission commanders, Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov, exchanged the first international handshake in space through the open hatch of the Soyuz.

Elizabeth Howell

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