US-Soviet Cooperation in Outer Space: From Shuttle-Mir to the International Space Station

May 10th, 2021 - by National Security Archives

Reagan-Gorbachev Summits Boosted Joint Efforts but Crises from SDI to Collapse of USSR Posed Major Obstacles 

National Security Archives

Washington, DC (May 7, 2021) — US-Soviet cooperation in space was a regular, if less noticed, feature of the final years of the USSR and continued well after the emergence of independent Russia, a compilation of declassified documents and interviews posted today by the National Security Archive underscores.  In the second of a two-part posting, records from Russian and American archives highlight the successes of joint operations ranging from the Shuttle-Mir program to the International Space Station. 

At the same time, the documents make clear that political obstacles of various kinds routinely intervened to create obstacles to progress.  Even as presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev promoted collaboration in outer space, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), often known as Star Wars, which he offered to share with Moscow, generated deep distrust of US intentions on the Soviet side and concerns from American officials about technology transfers and propaganda victories accruing to their Cold War rivals.

Supplementing the written materials in today’s posting is a two-part interview with former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. and excerpts from another interview with Ellen Stofan, former Chief Scientist at NASA and recently appointed Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian.  Both participated in joint programs with either Soviet or Russian counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s and took away critically important lessons from the experiences.

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Space Shuttle docks with Russian Space Station.

Following the success of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, US-Soviet collaboration in space continued in the 1980s with scientific information sharing and the perpetuation of bilateral working groups. Documentation published today by the National Security Archive includes several key records chronicling these ongoing common pursuits.

The first document in the posting, National Security Decision Directive Number 42, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, established his space policy, which specifically included promoting “international cooperative activities.” (Document 1) The rise to power of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 brought new opportunities for negotiations between the superpowers, such as the summit meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva and Reykjavik.[1] [2] 

In 1986, the Central Committee voted on a resolution on cooperation with the US “in the field of peaceful space exploration,” including potentially the “coordinated and collaborative exploration of Mars.” (Document 5) A CIA report in 1987 covered Soviet perspectives on a new scientific cooperative agreement between the two countries, as well as Soviet objectives and concerns for the agreement. (Document 6) The report noted that cooperative efforts had improved “as a consequence of the general understanding on exchanges reached by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev” in Geneva and in Reykjavik, and due to Gorbachev taking steps to address human rights issues.

Despite these successes, political issues continued to threaten to disrupt cooperative efforts. Perhaps the most serious obstacle was the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and often referred to as the “Star Wars program.”

SDI was a proposed missile defense system that featured both space- and Earth-based missile intercept stations. The Soviets opposed it vigorously because they viewed it as a step toward deploying weapons in space and thus giving the United States a potential first-strike capability. Reagan wrote to Gorbachev in April 1985 justifying the program against Soviet concerns, but it would remain a key irritant between the leaders for many years.[3] 

Reagan was even willing to share SDI technology with the Soviet Union, including options such as open laboratories and joint control of deployed systems, as discussed in a letter from CIA Director Casey to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. (Document 3) But many Soviet officials were deeply suspicious.  Some believed that Gorbachev made an error in his focus on SDI during the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, while some of their American counterparts felt he had erred in not pursuing Reagan’s offer for technology sharing.[4] 

At the same time, the American side had its own doubters about the wisdom of Reagan’s idea.  A CIA note commenting on a March 1985 State Department proposal for US-Soviet space cooperation presents a series of sharp objections from senior Agency analysts ranging from concerns about giving up technology secrets to blunting Washington’s “SDI negotiating strength.” (Document 2)

Both the US and Soviet sides anticipated utilizing cooperative efforts as propaganda for their aims relating to SDI. The State Department proposal reveals some of the administration’s public relations aims when it came to outer space — arguing that “cooperative space activities could act as a foil for the Soviets’ anti-SDI propaganda.” (Document 2) 

On the Soviet side, a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev from close advisors Lev Zaykov, Eduard Shevardnadze, Anatoly Dobrynin, and Alexandr Yakovlev in July 1986 reports on a conversation between the Soviet embassy in West Germany and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr on his proposals for a scientist-led initiative against SDI and for the peaceful use of space, which they proposed to actively participate in. (Document 4)

Despite these political concerns and impediments, cooperation continued. Smaller-scale cooperative efforts were an important part of the process. Intensive collaborative work and frequent mutual visits went on largely under the political radar with significant results.

Among other outcomes, the experience deeply affected the lives of Soviet and American scientists and thus contributed to the improvement of relations between the two countries on an individual basis. As a young scientist, the author’s mother, Dr. Ellen Stofan, used Soviet spacecraft (Venera 15/16) data of Venus for her PhD research at Brown University through a planetary science program between Brown and the V.I. Vernadsky Institute in Moscow. Dr. Stofan, a former NASA Chief Scientist and now the Smithsonian Under Secretary for Science and Research , visited the Soviet Union several times in the 1980s and spent time working with Soviet scientists. On her time in the program, Dr. Stofan said:

[T]he relationship between Brown University and the Vernadsky Institute allowed increased scientific cooperation — leading to not just an increased understanding of how planets like Venus and Mars can help us understand how Earth works, but also demonstrating that international, cooperative science means more and higher quality science.
Cooperation between the then-Soviet Union and the United States helped provide a way forward, however small, to show that the two countries could and should find common ground. Having grown up in an era of tension between the US and the Soviet Union, interacting with the Russian scientists, visiting their homes and meeting their families, reminded me of the common values that we had in addition to our shared passion for understanding how our solar system works.
Such programs may seem minor in comparison to large-scale programs like the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but the opportunity for scientists to work together and find common ground has a major impact on both the work produced and the attitudes of those involved
. [5]

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, space cooperation was seen as one of the more promising areas for building the new partnership between the United States and newly democratic Russia.  It would also help the Russian scientists who lost their jobs or funding during the post-Soviet transition crisis. 

It is notable that when Vice President Al Gore visited Boris Yeltsin in December 1994 (the Russian president received his visitor in the hospital where he was recovering after minor surgery), they compared the process of building a partnership between Russia, the United States, and an expanding NATO to spaceships docking in space.

Gore employed the metaphor using his hands to show how carefully it should be done and Yeltsin, clearly enjoying the demonstration, also used his hands to show how it should be done — simultaneously and mutually, and not with one station chasing after the other.[6]

Several new programs between the US and Russia included cooperation in space, notable among them the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, which included a working group on space exploration.  These programs played key roles in establishing a new partnership between the two countries.[7] 

The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, a joint undertaking on economic and technological cooperation led by the American vice president and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, featured a number of agreements relating to space, including establishing Russian involvement in what would become the International Space Station (ISS).

A National Security Memorandum from 1993 on decisions regarding the Space Station notes the importance of “future Russian partnership,” but urges caution “until proliferation issues are satisfactorily resolved.” (Document 7) Since its launch in 1998, the ISS has been a symbol of international partnership and the power of scientific cooperation, with Russians and Americans working alongside each other on the station to this day.

In the early years following the Soviet collapse, the US and Russia worked together on the Shuttle-Mir program, the first American-Russian space shuttle mission. Success was by no means guaranteed and even the participants harbored skepticism. 

In a conversation in October 2020, former astronaut and NASA Administrator (2009-2017) Charles Bolden, Jr. recalled his reaction to being told he would command a joint US-Russian mission in 1994, the first of the Shuttle-Mir program: “[M]y immediate answer was: ‘Forget it!’ I’m a Marine and I’ve trained all my life to fight them and they’ve trained all their life to fight me.”[8] 

However, following a dinner with cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Vadimir Titov, in which they discussed their families, the mission, and their hopes for the world, Bolden agreed to command STS-60. Bolden also credits NASA astronaut and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project commander General Tom Stafford’s close friendship with his Soviet counterpart, General Alexey Leonov, for inspiring him to participate.

Bolden and Krikalev’s friendship shows the importance of establishing connections, as both went on to work together as high-ranking members of their respective space agencies, Bolden as NASA administrator and Krikalev as the head of the Russian cosmonaut training center.

Today, space cooperation between the US and Russia faces new challenges as diplomatic relations continue to worsen. Russia’s decision to partner with China on a lunar base, instead of with the US on the Artemis Program, signals a break in a once healthy space relationship that survived the height of the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and other tense moments in the relationship.

From various public accounts, the experience produced enthusiastic proponents on both sides. For his part, former astronaut Bolden took away the hope that “people will come to see the importance of collaboration and really working hard to find mutually beneficial solutions to problems and issues.” 

He acknowledged the need “to be able to disagree, … but if you disagree congenially and respectfully, and just agree to disagree,” then it should be possible to “expand that out of the science and engineering realm, the way it is now, to life in general.”[9] 

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.