Sometimes it’s the small things. I’ve previously written about the power of objects that captivate us. Objects can make us curious to know more about the world and on occasion turn us into collectors. Objects can also evoke memories, giving perspective and context to history.
It’s that last ability I’d like to discuss here. The museum has a small collection of space memorabilia, mostly flight crew publicity photos, plaques, newspaper articles and other documents. Recently an embroidered souvenir space flight patch entered the collection; probably not of high monetary value, it could have easily been sold in a gift shop at NASA or here at the museum. Except that this patch was for the Apollo 17–Soyuz 19 mission. Now unless you’re an ardent fan of NASA history or, ahem, a certain age, that last sentence is very likely meaningless to you. My reaction however was “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years!” Instantly history telescoped.
For those of you either too young or a bit foggy on history, the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place July 15 – 24, 1975. I’ll leave it to the HMNS Astronomy staff to determine the scientific significance of the flight but politically and historically it was a really big dang deal. It was the last Apollo program flight and the first joint mission of two different nations in outer space. Having won the race to be first on the moon six years earlier (1969), the last Apollo spacecraft docked with the Soyuz spacecraft of the USSR, the Americans’ lunar landing rival. The 1970s were a time of détente, but the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was still raging. The fact that these two countries were able to pull off this joint venture is amazing. And politics aside, the science and technology to be worked out between the two space agencies was no easy task. Not to mention the language difficulties.
Our fair city was a big part of the mission. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexey A. Leonov and Valery N. Kubasov, trained at JSC several times. In turn, the Apollo astronauts, Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, trained in Moscow and were the first Americans to visit the Russian launch pad. It was decided that each crew would learn the language of the other and speak to their counterparts in their newly acquired tongue. Thus during the mission, the cosmonauts spoke in English to the astronauts who spoke to the cosmonauts in Russian. Neither language is easy to learn, they don’t even share a common alphabet. Just imagine that, along with all the pressures of a space flight and representing the best of your home country, you’re doing it all in a language that isn’t your native tongue. When the two spacecrafts docked on July 17, the cosmonauts responded with “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.” After the hatch between the two spacecrafts opened the crews physically shook hands in a moment transmitted live to earth and seen by a world-wide audience. For a good overview of the entire mission read this.
The Apollo-Soyuz mission wasn’t the only news event in 1975. A few other things from that same year…Saigon fell to the communists, Franco died in Spain, oil rose to over $13 a barrel, a gallon of gas was about 44¢, Motorola took out its first patent for a mobile phone, a couple of guys named their start-up company Microsoft, some guy from New Jersey named Bruce released a vinyl record album called Born to Run, and NBC let a bunch of unknown comedians fill up dead air time in a show with the unimaginative title of Saturday Night Live.
So, zooming thirty-five years forward through the telescope of history, what perspective does this simple patch bring? Well, Americans and Russians have been working side by side in space for years now. The USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended (the recent spy swap not withstanding!), and no one gets too excited about the multiple nationalities working together on the International Space Station. We can see crystal clear NASA shuttle films in 3-D in the IMAX theatre right here at HMNS, no need to gather around a boxy television watching grainy images. However, sad to say, as we note the 35th anniversary of the last Apollo flight we’re nearing the end of the space shuttle flights that replaced it. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Microsoft, the Boss, and SNL are still influencing American culture, but there seems to be uncertainty about the future of NASA and manned space flights. Our little souvenir space flight patch represents a distinct moment in both the history of NASA and the history of the country at large. Small and ordinary it might be, but it allows us to reflect on what’s been and to wonder what’s next.