In the summer of 1971 Tom Stafford and his wife were vacationing in a fiercely divided Europe. West Berlin was surrounded by a ten-foot wall topped while the fighter pilots of a dozen air forces maintained 24-hour strip alert ready to attack one another. On the opposite side of the globe Americans fought communists in the jungles and mountains and remote villages of Southeast Asia. It was the warmest stretch of the long Cold War.
Stafford at the time was the head of NASA’s Astronaut Office and a veteran of three spaceflights, including as commander of Apollo 10, the moon-circling prelude to Neil Armstrong’s landing. He and Faye were in Frankfurt on June 30th when the news came that three Soviet cosmonauts had died during re-entry of their Soyuz spacecraft. For three weeks they had been the first crew of the earth’s first space station, Salyut 1, appearing nightly on Soviet television, laughing and singing in zero-g, and their sudden death traumatized the whole country.
Four years earlier Stafford had lost three friends when Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad, so he knew the heartbreak his fellow spacemen must be feeling. He offered to attend the funeral. He was already on his way before the formal diplomatic notice was sent designating Stafford as President Nixon’s representative. He served as a pallbearer as the cosmonauts’ remains were immured in the Kremlin Wall where only Heroes of the Soviet Union come to rest.
This gesture of respect was appreciated. The next day Stafford’s return flight was delayed on the runway two hours so the chief cosmonaut could ply him with cognac and caviar and gratitude. It was the start of a relationship. Within two years Stafford became the first American to visit cosmonaut headquarters in Star City and the secret launch complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. During these visits a dream took shape to join together in earth orbit a spacecraft from each nation to symbolize the kinship that existed between the separate space programs.
It’s noteworthy that the governments of both nations approved the scheme after it was presented to them, fully imagined, by their respective space agencies. The politicians and diplomats made lofty speeches and signed flowery treaties but the collaboration wasn’t their idea and didn’t involve them in any meaningful way. The Apollo-Soyuz mission that took place in July 1975, four years after Stafford’s initial visit, was entirely the work of engineers and affiliated nerds from different cultures united by a shared dream of human destiny.
When Apollo commander Tom Stafford opened the hatch to welcome aboard Soyuz commander Alexey Leonov it marked the apogee of a friendship that has endured for forty years. Today the two old spacemen have grandchildren named for each other, still communicate regularly, and continue to advocate a future of space exploration that transcends earthly boundaries. They have both seen governments come and go—there have been nine U.S. presidents and four general secretaries of the USSR plus three Russian presidents since that sad funeral—and their shared dream has survived them all.
Stafford and Leonov both chair commissions that hold meetings, study problems, nurture relationships, and wield influence in their otherwise rival nations. They were among the first advocates of the International Space Station and continue to support the partnership that sustains it. The ISS is their mutual legacy and we were fortunate to interview Stafford when he brought his commission to the Johnson Space Center recently.
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