45 years ago: Full circle

The final Apollo as seen from Soyuz, 45 years ago

            Circling the earth aboard Apollo-Soyuz, we’ve come full circle, no better symbol than Deke Slayton himself, one of the original astronauts, grounded for over a decade due to a heart condition.  On July 19, he finally gains the opportunity to serve as a true space pilot.  After 44 hours docked with Soyuz 19, it’s time to go our separate ways, and Deke takes Apollo’s left-hand seat for the undocking and a series of joint maneuvers before our final farewell with Soyuz.

            We back away from Soyuz to a distance of 650 feet.  At this range, we serve as an occulting disc creating an artificial solar eclipse when viewed from Soyuz.  Alexi Leonov and Valeri Kubasov shoot pictures of the solar corona.

            After a half hour, we move back in for a docking test, Deke still at the controls.  For this test, the Soyuz docking ring is extended to simulate the Russian craft serving as the active vehicle in docking. However, they do not carry enough fuel to do so, and as throughout the joint mission, we actually make the maneuvers. Deke brings her in, making contact even more slowly that Tom Stafford did.  Capture.  But Deke accidentally hits the roll thrusters, causing a sway and shutter that alarms Russian controllers.  However, the mistake serves to show how robust the system is.  The mechanism does not approach its stress limits.   And in seven minutes, Soyuz retracts the ring into a hard dock.  We stay docked nearly three hours, although no hatches are opened or crew transfers made. In that period, the Soyuz crew eats their lunch.

            We back away again, and Slayton, still at the controls as if making up for all those ground-bound years, executes a precise series of maneuvers, flying around the Soyuz at ranges from 492 to half a mile as a laser-like beam is bounced off retroreflectors on the Soyuz.  The reflections are analyzed by a spectrograph on Apollo, precisely measuring levels of atomic oxygen and nitrogen at low-orbital altitudes.

            After four hours, we go our separate ways in space.  Leonov calls, “Thank you very much for your big job.”

            Stafford replies in Russian.  “Vam Tozhe.  Byl khorosho.”  (“Thank you also.  It was well done.”)  

            Soyuz sends a final “Dozvidaniye.”  Until we meet again.

            The Soyuz will land on July 21st.  We will continue for nine days in space, the last chance to conduct experiments between Skylab and the Space Shuttle.  We are carrying twenty-on U.S. experiments and two from Germany, our Docking Module now serving as a mini-space station.

`           Full circle:  Our flight now mirroring that of the first Apollo flowing on an earth orbital mission in 1968, Apollo 7.  However, we are busier than the Apollo 7 crew was during the last half of their mission.  The day after bidding Soyuz farewell, we are so busy with crystal-growth experiments in the multipurpose furnace in the Docking Module, and earth-observation photography, contorting ourselves to get good views out Apollo’s windows, we barely have time to squeeze in lunch.

            Full circle:  It’s July 20, a Sunday as it was six years before. The ground mentions it — six years ago Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  Tom Stafford replies, “Roger. Remember it well.”

            And this, the final Apollo, will land on July 24, the sixth anniversary of Apollo 11’s splashdown. And here the circle breaks.  Before, splashdown always marked the beginning of the countdown to the next flight. Not this time. 

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