July 22, 2010

Astronauts, Cosmonauts Reunite After 35 Years

U.S. astronauts reunited with Soviet cosmonauts on Wednesday to mark the 35th anniversary of their "handshake in space" in 1975 at the height of the Cold War.

Apollo astronauts Tom Stafford and Vance Brand joked with Soyuz cosmonaut Alexei Leonov over their troubles communicating after the initial greetings that took place when the two space crafts docked on July 17, 1975.

The three men shook hands as the hatches opened, marking the start of the East-West space cooperation following years of grueling planning between the Cold War enemies.

"We had three official space languages: English, Russian and the language of (the US state of) Oklahoma," Leonov, 76, poked fun at Stafford's southern US accent.

Leonov was the first man to ever make a space walk in 1965.

Stafford, who is currently 79-years-old, said learning Russian was the most challenging feat of his career.

"The Apollo-Soyuz mission was my fourth mission. I had flown three previously, one stop to the moon and back... so technically Apollo-Soyuz to me was somewhat simple," Stafford told reporters in Moscow.

"But the most difficult thing of all the missions I flew was learning the Russian language."

"I knew that when I opened the hatch and met Alexei I had to speak Russian as well as he spoke English and with my Oklahoma accent that was very difficult," he said.

Brand said that language miscommunications were fodder for many shared jokes, which ended up helping surmount the deeper divide between the long-time rivals.

"We laughed a lot (over our mistakes). But looking at the big picture we were breaking new ground," he said. "Back then everything was much different, our cultures were very different."

"And from a technical stand point our space programs grew up like two trees with two very different roots."

Stafford said the space mission showed that a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations was possible back on Earth.

"The Soyuz flight was a historic flight. It is a symbol, a very important symbol for the world. In space, we forged very warm relations and we showed it was possible to live in this way back on earth," he said.


Image Caption: Astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton embraces cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov in the Soyuz spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA


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