July 17, 1975: Apollo-Soyuz — “Capture”

Alexi Leonov (left) & Tom Stafford shake hands.

            On July 17th, the show begins — and we know this joint mission is a show of politics and national pride.  

            July 16, our first full day in space, had passed relatively quiet, the major challenge coming first thing in the morning, the fix of the stuck docking probe blocking our transfer tunnel to the new Docking Module.  It involved backing out of eleven steps we’d made after launch to remove the device, staring all over again.  We remove two screws and a cover, moving a misaligned cable, and proceeded through the eleven steps again to the twelfth, using the tool to unlock the capture latches at the device’s nose.  And then we were in, or I should say, Deke Slayton entered the Docking Module and checked it out.

            We only had one maneuver during the day, a phasing burn, putting us 2,600 miles behind Soyuz which has entered a 140-mi. circular orbit.  In an orbit of 108 by 143 mi., we slowly closed the gap as we slept. Nothing new here — we’re following the standard rendezvous sequence used in Skylab.

            This morning, we begin the chase at 8:51 a.m. (EDT) with NC2, a phasing burn that lowers our apogee to 115 mi., thereby speeding up our closure.

            Five minutes later, we sight Soyuz through our sexton.  “He’s just a speck right now.”
            We’re closing on a bright star.  Make a wish upon the star-bright for the future of deescalating tensions between our countries.

            In Russian, Deke calls, “Soyuz, Apollo.  How do you read me?”  We speak to each other in the other’s language, which insures we don’t talk so fast as to be misunderstood.

            Valeri Kubasov replies in English, “Very well.  Hello everyone.”

            A half hour later, we establish radar ranging — 222 km apart.

            We’re closing on a red star, on a hammer and sickle, on decades of fear and competition, the sword of nuclear war.  

            At 10:12 a.m. we make another burn of our Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine, the Coelliptic maneuver — NRS — placing us in an orbit 127 by 140 mi., spiraling up toward Soyuz.

            We’re approaching at a rate of 1.1 mi. per minute.  Which nation is superior?  We’re in the larger, more sophisticate spacecraft.  The Soyuz is three-fourths our length, two-thirds our diameter, half our weight.  It consists of three sections, a ball-like Orbital Module with workspace out front, attached by the cramped, bell-shaped reentry module, the only part of the spacecraft that returns to Earth.  And behind it, an unpressurized equipment module with engines and twin solar arrays for power.  But we’re the last Apollo.  Soyuz will fly on — indeed, as we fly, the crew of Soyuz 18, Pyotr Klimuk and Vitaly Sevastiyanov, launched May 24, is aboard the Salyut 4 space station on a 60-day mission. 

            At 11:17 a.m., a one-second burn begins Terminal Phase Initiation (TPI), the final rendezvous sequence — we’re in a line-of-sight distance from Soyuz of 22 mi.

            We begin final braking a half hour later, and Capcom Dick Truly calls, “I’ve got two messages for you:  Moscow is go for docking; Houston is go for docking.  It’s up to you guys.”

            We call to Soyuz Commander Leonov in Russian, “Half a mile, Alexi.”

            He replies in English. ” Roger — 800 meters.” And he rolls the Soyuz 60 degrees to orient with our Docking Module.

            We move in, fighting the glare of the sun.  We’re closing, two equal, even though we are the active partner in the docking.  We are all equal in orbit.  Only us pilots up here who speak the same language of space.

            We move in slowly, the three flower pedals of our docking mechanizing reaching for the identical pedals on the the spherical Orbital Module of the Soyuz.  We close at just one-third of a mile per hour.

            “Three meters.” Just 9 ft. to go.  The pedals of each ship slide between those of the other like interlocking fingers.

            Contact, at 12:12 p.m., a few minutes early.  “Capture.”  Our docking ring, extended about a foot, are attached to hydraulic actuators which absorb any motion.  After three minutes we retract the ring to create a seal, with latches holding us firmly together.

            We call, “Docking is complete.”

            Leonov replies exuberantly, “Good deal!  It was a good show!”

            Now the show shifts to Deke Slayton who opens the hatch to the Docking Module, which will now serve as an airlock.  And he receives a shock — a strong smell.  Like hot glue?  Like something burning?  We don gas masks . . .

            The smell fades, all is well.  It takes three hours before the hatches between the module and Soyuz can be opened. First, we leave Vance Brand behind in the Command Module to watch over it. We close the hatch to Apollo and its atmosphere of 5 psi pure oxygen.  We flood the module with an oxygen/nitrogen mixture and raise the pressure to 10 psi, matching the Soyuz.

            The actual transfer process, this is the first of four during the 44 hours we will be docked, takes about a half hour.  Deke works through the steps to open the hatch, which Leonov equalized pressure with the Docking Module and opens his hatch.  A tunnel, about 2-ft. long, is created between the hatches where the vehicles are joined.  

            The Houston capcom calls up, “We’ve got a great picture of the hatches.”   TV broadcasts all the activities.   You could say that television is a most crucial element of the mission, both nations attempting to put their best on worldwide display.

            As we pass over Amsterdam, the hatches are open, the time noted for history:  3:17:26 p.m. EDT.  Leonov peers through the tunnel and says, “Glad to see you.  Stafford replies in Russian “Hello, very glad to see you.”

            “Come over here and shake hands,” Stafford says.  Trailing communications lines, Leonov floats as far as he can into the tunnel and the two shake hands.  TV from both the Docking Module and the Soyuz Orbital Module showers the planet below.

            We move into the Soyuz Orbital Module for the first of many ceremonies, presenting the Soviet Crew with small flags.

            And within minutes, the politicians insert themselves into the show.  First General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev issues a message piped aboard. Then comes President Gerald Ford’s turn to speak.

            They speak and speak. And know not of what we experience up here and express in our common language of space.  Yet perhaps it is what they wish the world to discover through our joint mission.  Ahhh, to be more than a star-struck show.

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