On the fifteenth day of July 1975, according to the best intelligence available, some 200,000 rockets built for war were in the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. Many were small, shoulder-fired weapons. Others were clustered aboard armored vehicles. Still more were slung beneath the wings or within the bomb bays of fighters and bombers. Hundreds of war rockets were ready to pop from beneath the sea from the missile tubes of nuclear submarines. They could race up to four thousand miles to their target while thousands of silo-buried heavy missiles, some as tall as a ten-story building, were ready to launch with up to ten thermonuclear warheads, each destined for individual targets within a given spray on any distant continent. Never in history had our planet been so threatened by its dominant species.
On that day, only two of those rockets carried humans instead of means of destruction. The first off its launch pad was to be Russia’s Soyuz 19. It was to be followed six hours later by America’s Saturn 1B with the Apollo. The two ships were to rendezvous in space for a handshake—a meeting of friendship and understanding; but more important, if it was a good day, it would be the beginning of the end for the massive nuclear threat.
Détente, the diplomats were calling it. Richard Nixon had created it. The world was listening and watching. Its inhabitants were staring at the first live television ever broadcast from Russia’s launch pads on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
“Launch is ready,” the loudspeakers blared.
Soyuz 19 and its rocket’s internal systems were alive.
In Florida, happy NASA officials awoke Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand: “Your friends are upstairs. Right on schedule.”
Soyuz 19 was coming around the planet on its fourth trip when the American crew climbed aboard their rocket and spaceship. This was the last Saturn 1B booster, and the last Apollo in the stable.
“Aleksei and Valeri, from Apollo,” Commander Tom Stafford called Soyuz. “We’ll be up there shortly.”
Saturn 1B came to life. Flame spewed in sheets over the launch platform, and it took only seconds for Deke to know their booster was no smooth and mighty Saturn V. 1B’s first stage was really eight of Dr. Wernher Von Braun’s Jupiter rockets clustered as one, and it clawed its way into the sky with each of the eight rocket engines fighting for dominance. Deke felt as if he were riding an old pickup truck, slam-banging down a rutted road on his Wisconsin farm, as the rockets thundered along with a cacophony of noises—propellants pounding through lines from turbo-pumps spinning at tremendous speed, pressures surging with booming thuds throughout the stage, all to the accompaniment of a teeth-rattling, eye-blurring ride.
They punched through Max Q and then shot upward like a frightened jackrabbit until the rockets’ roar and the high-pitched howl of air ripping past them vanished. The teeth-jarring ride was suddenly over. But only for a second. Explosive charges blew apart the two stages, and then the second stage fired and took dead aim at that small doughnut in space—that small rendezvous target they had to pass through to settle them on that orbital track they would need to meet Soyuz 19.
They made it, and Deke Slayton shouted, “I love it! Damn, I love it. It sure as hell was worth waiting sixteen years.”
“You liked that, huh, Deke?” Tom Stafford grinned.
“I would like to make that ride about once a day,” the fifty-one-year-old rookie laughed as he suddenly felt the marvelous and strange feeling of weightlessness. “Yowee! I’ve never felt so free,” he yelled again.
Stafford and Brand shared the enjoyment. But they had work to do, and they quickly shed their cumbersome spacesuits, climbed into their flight coveralls, and readied Apollo to execute the maneuvers needed to meet the Russian ship.
Vance Brand tuned in Soyuz’s frequency. Speaking in Russian, he said, “Miy nakhoditswya na orbite!”
They heard Valeri Kubasov answer in English: “Very well. Hello, everybody.”
“Hello, Valeri,” Deke spoke in Russian. “How are you?”
“How are you? Good day!” Kubasov replied.
“Excellent!” Deke boomed. “I’m very happy.”
Aleksei Leonov’s voice came on. “Apollo, Soyuz, how do you read me?”
“I read you excellently,” Deke answered. He wasn’t the most loquacious astronaut up there, but who in hell cared? That wasn’t the point; he was in orbit, and it was time for the hunt to begin.
Tom Stafford took the controls of Apollo and fired the first of several rocket-thruster maneuvers needed to track down Soyuz during the next two days. They were playing a celestial game of tag, and they were having a ball. Circling in a lower orbit and making precise course-correction burns, Apollo gradually caught up with Soyuz high over the French city of Metz, where they performed an orbital ballet for a worldwide television audience. Apollo relayed pictures of Soyuz glowing green in a brilliant sun against the blackness of space and the azure of Earth’s oceans below.
With a slight shudder, while traveling at 17,400 miles per hour, Tom Stafford docked Apollo with Soyuz. “We have capture,” Stafford reported.
“Well done, Tom,” the Soyuz commander told Apollo’s commander. The two were destined to be generals in their respective air forces, but more important, they would become good friends. “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands,” Leonov added.
Throughout the world, television audiences watched as the astronauts and cosmonauts cleared the hatches between their respective ships and floated in the weightlessness from one spacecraft to the other.
“Friend,” Stafford called out as he shook hands with Leonov.
“Very, very happy to see you. How are things?” Leonov asked, reaching out to give Stafford and Slayton the traditional Russian bear hug.
The two crews exchanged gifts before gathering around a green table in Soyuz for a meal and a toast to their success. They feasted on reconstituted strawberries, cheese, apple and plum sticks, and tubes of borscht the cosmonauts had mischievously labeled vodka. Later, aboard Apollo, it was potato soup, bread, more strawberries, and grilled steak.
During the forty-seven hours the two ships were docked, the Americans and Russians executed their own brand of diplomacy. Aleksei Leonov said the flight had been made possible by the “climate of détente” that had been begun by President Richard Nixon and termed it “a first step on the endless road of space exploration.”
President Gerald Ford could hardly wait for his chance to talk to the astronauts, especially to Deke Slayton.
“As the world’s oldest space rookie, do you have any advice for young people who hope to fly on future space missions?” the President asked.
“Never give up,” Deke chuckled. “Decide what you want to do and then never give up until you’ve done it.”
Until now, the Russian and American spaceflight had been an Apollo show. It was time to prove cosmonaut skills as well. The two spaceships separated. Aleksei Leonov flew Soyuz 19 through several maneuvers and then, as slick as a greased pig, the master cosmonaut who was the first human to walk in space slid the two ships together for a perfect hard dock.
There remained no question that in a space emergency, either nation could fly to the rescue of the other.
Only a few years before, a joint American-Russian space mission would have been judged unthinkable. Now five persons from both countries gathered 140 miles above the planet and held news conferences with the worldwide media. That was the lasting foundation and the heart of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Earth’s two most powerful military nations, bristling with antagonism and weaponry, met peacefully, in full cooperation.
When it came time for the final separation between Apollo-Soyuz, Deke Slayton got his chance to fly in space. He took the controls of Apollo and with a deft and sure hand, developed first in the European and Pacific campaigns of World War II, he backed Apollo away from Soyuz and began flying dazzling maneuvers around the Soviet ship. They flew together for a short time.
After six days in space, Leonov and Kubasov fired Soyuz’s retro-rockets and began their trip home. Soviet television for the first time showed live coverage of a Russian spaceship parachuting to its touchdown, and the Apollo crew applauded.
Soyuz was home, but Apollo’s trip was not yet done. After all, it was the last Apollo out, and the astronauts wanted to stay in orbit as long as possible.
Predawn the following day, salmon fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska looked through scattered clouds. One star in the night moved. It first appeared above the northwestern horizon, a sharp pinpoint of light that quickly grew in size as it traveled across the top of the world and sped away silently in a long, sinking fall across the curve of the planet over Canada. The bright messenger in the heavens was in fact America’s last Apollo, sweeping toward daybreak.
Deke Slayton braced himself at Apollo’s large viewing port and looked downward, awed by the deep orange glow of dawn directly ahead over Lake Superior, and with his practiced eye, his skill of searching for landmarks from a lifetime of flight, he checked the southern shore of the lake against the sparkling lights of Duluth. Now he followed the Mississippi River winding southward, dawn reflecting off the muddy water. He looked for the confluence of the Mississippi with the Wisconsin River, and when he found it, there was La Crosse, unmistakable with its night lights still glowing in the dawn, and from 140 miles high, the town of Sparta—his hometown—was securely in his sight. Five miles below Sparta, the countryside flowed along hills and valleys that were the most familiar place on Earth to Deke, his family’s farm. One hundred-sixty acres still held the footprints of his boyhood years.
Deke Slayton felt at home in two places at the same time. Down below, a forever place in his memory, and here, home in his immediate physical surrounding—within the interior of the last Apollo he had waited so patiently to fly.
One home was lasting. His home in space was another question. It would be at least four, more realistically six, years before the new Space Shuttle would launch. But despite the uncertainty of the astronauts’ future, there was a much larger question—the fate of Earth rolling beneath his orbit.
America’s oldest space rookie looked down and there it was, the beginning of life, its present and its end; and coming from a farm, Deke had no doubt that the bounty of the precious planet was finite. Its supply of energy, foodstuffs, clean atmosphere, pristine waters—all were finite. And whatever age to come was being shortened by the myopic uncaring of mankind.
If Deke, and the other astronauts before him and those who would follow, were successful, then Homo sapiens had taken their first faltering steps not merely to other worlds close by, but to far distant stars and worlds revolving about those alien suns. Deke continued looking down with a mixture of hope and sadness, knowing one day this good Earth below would pass into history.
The hope was, Deke knew, that if humans one day were successful in journeying to distant stars, and populating those faraway planets, then the human race would be safe. A star might go nova, obliterate an entire solar system, but if the human species populated many solar systems…life would go on.
That was the gift to the future of Deke Slayton’s generation of astronauts, but it was also a time for members of the space family to worry. The long string of missions named Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo was ending. Thousands of people would be losing their jobs. There was a high probability I would be one of them. I could not imagine NBC keeping me on the payroll for four to six years waiting for the Space Shuttle to fly. As the last Apollo returned safely, I packed up my microphone and flew home from Houston’s Mission Control to my family.
At the end of our street, Jo and my eldest child, Alicia, stood waiting as they had hundreds of times before. Alicia leapt in my lap, slid under the steering wheel, and finished the drive home. Despite the dark clouds on the horizon, my family was a smiley bunch. The possible loss of my job wasn’t all that frightening. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” Karla, the youngest one said, “I’ll just sell more cookies.”