35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Outer Space, Part 2: From Shuttle-Mir to the International Space Station

International Space Station

The International Space Station, captured by an STS-134 crew member from the space shuttle Endeavor on May 30, 2011. Photo Credit: NASA

Published: May 7, 2021
Briefing Book #760

Edited by Sarah Dunn

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Reagan-Gorbachev summits boosted joint efforts but crises from SDI to collapse of USSR posed major obstacles

Declassified documents, interviews with former top NASA figures spotlight cooperative experiences

Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021 – U.S.-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 U.S. 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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Following the success of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, U.S.-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 U.S. “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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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] 

 

The documents

 
document thumbnail
1982-07-04
Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

 

This National Security Decision Directive, Number 42, establishes the national space policy for President Ronald Reagan’s administration. The Directive describes the basic goals of U.S. space policy, which include to “promote international cooperative activities that are in the national interest,” and to “cooperate with other nations in maintaining the freedom of space for all activities that enhance the security and welfare of mankind.” Also discussed are the basic principles of the space program, which follow the guideline for space behavior set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

 

 
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1985-03-25
Source: Central Intelligence Agency Digital Archive

 

This note from the office of the Director of Central Intelligence, NIO At Large Hal Ford, discusses intelligence analysts’ response to a State Department proposal sent to President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, on U.S.-Soviet space cooperation. The proposal contains an insert into an upcoming speech by the president, which would announce bilateral talks on the subject.  The proposal notes that the Soviets “have privately expressed keen interest in renewing space cooperation.” It notes that a previous attempt for a joint simulated space rescue mission had been unsuccessful as the Soviets had stated that “such cooperation would be out of the question as long as the US was seeking to ‘militarize space.’” The CIA message notes that there are many policy issues to examine, such as timing, how to avoid “unwanted technology transfer,” and the possibility of such an initiative blunting “our SDI negotiating strength,” a reference to the president’s controversial Strategic Defense Initiative.

 

 
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1985-11-01
Source: Central Intelligence Agency Digital Archive

 

This memorandum to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger from Director of Central Intelligence William Casey includes a paper on sharing SDI technology with the Soviets, in which the Apollo-Soyuz Test program is discussed and described as providing the “best model for [the] next 5-10 years, during the technology development phase of SDI program.” Also mentioned is the author’s view that the Soviets got the “better deal” from Apollo-Soyuz, with it being more of a political success for them and more beneficial in terms of high-technology sharing, despite the U.S. not sharing its most advanced space technology. The memo notes that the Soviets also still cite Apollo-Soyuz as a “model for future cooperation in space.”

 

 
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1986-07-23
Source: Vitaliĭ Leonidovich Kataev papers, Box 4, Folder 9, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

 

This translated letter to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from his close advisors Lev Zaykov, Eduard Shevardnadze, Anatoly Dobrinin, and Alexander Yakovlev discusses a recent meeting between officials at the Soviet embassy in West Germany and the director of the Max Planck Society’s Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Hans-Peter Dürr. Dürr, a respected physicist and vocal critic of SDI, discussed a number of proposals regarding the peaceful use of space and creating an initiative of scientists in opposition to SDI. The letter notes that “Dürr is a quite respected scientist in his circle, however, without our participation (in a useful form), his attempts to implement his proposals will probably yield few results,” and adds that “it seems expedient to use this possible gateway to Western scientists in our interests.”

 

 
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1986-08-16
Source: U.S. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Dmitrii A. Volkogonov Papers, Reel 17, Container 25

 

This translated Central Committee resolution included a note on cooperation, written by several Central Committee members, including Eduard Shevardnadze. The note contains instructions on possible cooperative efforts to be undertaken with the United States, as well as steps to begin talks on space cooperation. One particular area of focus is on the “coordinated and collaborative exploration of Mars,” which “could be seen as a preparatory stage for a possible crewed mission to Mars in the future.” It is noted that “at present it is inadvisable to suggest joint development” of a crewed Mars mission, due to the complexity and cost. The resolution instructs the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss cooperative efforts with the Americans “in the context of coordinated preparatory work” for an upcoming meeting between Secretary of State George Shultz and Shevardnadze.

 

 
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1987-12-02
Source: Central Intelligence Agency Digital Archive

 

This CIA Directorate of Intelligence report summarizes the Soviet perspectives on a new scientific cooperation agreement between the US and USSR. The document discusses the assumed Soviet objectives in seeking the agreement, which are to support Gorbachev’s economic modernization program, to enhance military capabilities, and to advance basic science, as well as to improve Gorbachev’s “domestic and international reputation.” Possible Soviet concerns, such as “continuing technological dependence on the West,” as well as the possibility of Soviet scientists defecting, are also discussed. Also included is a background paper on bilateral science and technology cooperation during the 1970s. The paper mentions that “as a consequence of the general understanding on exchanges reached by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the Geneva and Reykjavik summit meetings, interest in improving scientific cooperation has been rekindled,” especially since Gorbachev had “taken some steps to address what had been a major stumbling block from the US perspective: the human rights issue.”

 

 
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Source: William J. Clinton Presidential Library

 

This memorandum for National Security Advisor Anthony Lake from National Security Council staff member Steven R. Jones details a decision meeting on the Superconducting Super Collider and Space Station. The memo focuses on the decisions made regarding the Space Station. One of these decisions involves including “flexibility for the international partners and [to] stress future Russian partnership.” However, “caution was expressed about Russian participation until proliferation issues are satisfactorily resolved.” The memo mentions the decision to increase space station funding from $1.8 to $2 billion a year. President Clinton is noted as having “stressed the historic nature of this decision and the technological and geopolitical consequences of not maintaining U.S. leadership in these areas.” The decision on the space station will be “announced together with an emphasis on the Administration’s commitment to support basic science and international cooperation in S&T.” The first International Space Station (ISS) component was launched in 1998, and the first long-term residents arrived there in 2000.