After the Moon

America was proud of its moonwalkers, but we who followed spaceflight daily knew earthlings’ first visits to the moon could have been different. Had Russian cosmonauts sustained their early lead, the number going there might have been two or three times twenty-four.

In the beginning, the competition was fierce. The Soviets had gone all out in their desperate attempts to be first. But costly failures slowed them to a halt, and then, only two weeks before Apollo 17 returned from the moon, the Russians were down to a last-gasp hope that their giant N–1 rocket would fly. They could no longer be first, but they still struggled to get their cosmonauts to the moon in the same period in history as American astronauts had. Such a landing would restore some Soviet pride.

It was not to be.

Martin Caidin was in Russia. It was N–1’s fourth launch attempt. The mammoth rocket was to boost a heavy, unmanned lunar-landing spacecraft directly to the moon in a rehearsal for a manned landing. It rose into the Kazakhstan sky only to be ripped apart again by a series of violent explosions, its wreckage tumbling earthward while sounding the death knell of the Russians’ last, slim hope.

From the ashes of N–1, the Russians returned to their proven rockets and spacecraft and became successful in their efforts to place a space station in Earth orbit. The Salyut station led the way, while the American road to space in the aftermath of the highly successful Apollo moon landings developed potholes and detours.

A simple “breaking and entering” burglary at the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate scandal propelled this country into a self-devouring frenzy that would last until a peanut farmer from Georgia was elected President in 1976. No longer was there the driving force in the country’s space effort that had carried America to the moon. NASA’s visions were lost on the floors of a disenchanted Congress and a public that rapidly became apathetic.

Slowdown was NASA’s new marching orders. The agency’s planners and builders were replaced by a new wave of bureaucrats who swayed with the political winds, sadly short on dreams, drive, and any determination to keep forging outward beyond Earth.

NASA’s new task was to build something that could be flown again and again. It didn’t have to go anywhere but into Earth orbit and it didn’t necessarily need a mission, so bureaucrats inked their drawing boards with the STS—Space Transportation System—known as the Space Shuttle.

NASA failures were not with its equipment, but in promising that the Space Shuttle would be all things for all missions, that it would serve both civilian and military needs—and save truckloads of money in the process. The Space Shuttle program escalated swiftly in cost and decelerated just as rapidly in productivity. Weeks became months, and projects meant to take months stretched into years without a definite future.

Something had to fill the gap.

Engineers still on the job from Project Apollo dusted off the Saturn rockets and Apollo spacecraft left over from the three lunar landing missions that had fallen victim to the congressional ax. The few visionaries left in NASA proposed modifying this hardware into a modest space station where astronauts could study the sun and other stars, conduct experiments seeking pure materials and medicines, and learn to live in space for long periods just in case someone came up with a sensible thought of going somewhere else in the solar system. The cost would not be great, and the White House and Congress agreed what was left of the great NASA Apollo launch teams should be preserved. Thus Skylab, the country’s first space station, was born.

The third stage of a Saturn V was stripped and converted into the house-size “home away from home” with racks of scientific equipment, a state-of-the-art astronomical laboratory, and more than thirteen thousand cubic feet of comfort and freedom for three astronauts. Gone were the cramped spacecraft of the past. Cooking facilities, private quarters, showers, even the astronauts’ own gym for keeping in good physical shape while spending months in weightlessness rounded out Skylab’s interior.

America’s first space station thundered into orbit May 14, 1973. Three successive missions of three astronauts each rode smaller Saturn 1B rockets and Apollo spaceships to NASA’s first orbiting outpost. The final crew’s stay in 1974 was extended to eighty-four days and proved that astronauts would suffer no ill effects during long weightless voyages.

In the normal course of events, the man who rode herd on the astronauts would have been Deke Slayton. But during Skylab, Deke was busy getting himself back on flight status. He was being treated and tested by Dr. Harold Mankin, a world-renowned cardiologist from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Dr. Mankin found Slayton’s heart was, and had been, disease free and he was placed back on flight status. No one was happier for Deke than his close friend Alan Shepard, who had taken charge of the astronaut office.

Meanwhile, the Russians and NASA were plotting a mission where the two countries would meet and dock in space. Their efforts were inspired by Martin Caidin’s novel MAROONED, which legendary Hollywood producer Frank Capra had made into an Academy Award–winning motion picture. In the novel, a Russian cosmonaut saved American astronauts, and it was agreed a common docking device between both countries’ spacecraft would be wise. Project Apollo-Soyuz was born.

The selection team would have been shot if they had not picked Deke Slayton as a member of the Apollo-Soyuz crew. A classic party was thrown for Deke, and the happy and drunken astronaut was carried onto an aircraft with his crewmates Tom Stafford and Vance Brand. It was wheels up for training in Moscow.

Legendary Hollywood producer Frank Capra (center) at Cape Canaveral with the author of MAROONED, Martin Caidin (right). (Caidin Collection).

Two cosmonauts and three astronauts would make up the team that would meet in Earth orbit. The problems of making the Russian and American pilots function as a tightly knit unit were as formidable as the many technical issues that had to be resolved. The cosmonauts didn’t speak English, and the astronauts didn’t speak Russian. Neither side could read the markings and lettering of the equipment on the other’s spacecraft.

But world peace and possibly Earth’s survival itself were riding on the Apollo-Soyuz mission scheduled for the summer of 1975. The goal was critical for every American and Russian. Until now, any crew marooned in space with limited oxygen and power would have been lost. With the universal docking equipment being built for Apollo-Soyuz, chances of a future rescue would be almost certain.

For three years the Americans and Russians, supported by backup teams of engineers and space veterans, modified their spaceships, built new needed equipment, learned their respective languages, and practiced orbital flight maneuvers in new simulators.

The barriers came down. Russian and American suspicions waned. When cosmonauts Aleksei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov found themselves at Mission Control in Texas, and at Cape Canaveral’s launch pads in Florida, they eagerly waited to fly the astronauts to their Baikonur launch site to watch their big rockets thunder into the sky. In between forging the equipment needed and training to fly what they had created, there were three years of friendship-building with hot dogs and beer, borscht and vodka, swimming in the Florida surf, and wild snowball fights in the cosmonauts’ playground in Star City.

Slowly the pieces of the international puzzle came together. The Apollo-Soyuz teams were each firm in trusting their own equipment. Now they had gained trust in a never-flown international spaceship. Once Apollo and Soyuz were joined high above Earth, the tunnel formed by the common docking module would pressurize, hatches would open, and men who had been near enemies but now were close friends would form a union in space.

For Deke Slayton it would not be the moon, but it would be space, and what happened in the hard vacuum of Earth orbit would begin the melt of the cold war far below.

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