Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[312] An entirely different climate surrounded the efforts of NASA to cooperate with the Soviet Union. In this case competition, born of the Cold War, went far beyond mere rivalry and militated against the free and open cooperation that was readily possible with Western countries. Moved by an inherent idealism, U.S. scientists thought of cooperation in space science as a good means for reducing tension between the two countries, whereas the more realistic Soviet scientists every so often would have to point out to their U.S. colleagues that it was the other way round. Intimate or large-scale cooperation would have to await the resolution of political difficulties.
Nevertheless, it was an American trait to cling to the idealistic approach, and scientists made persistent efforts to encourage exchanges with. the Soviet Union.37 None of these overtures, however, bore any fruit until in February and March 1962 President Kennedy provided a basis-not a very firm one, but a basis nevertheless-for exploring more intimately ways in which to cooperate. In an exchange of letters with Nikita Khrushchev. Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, Kennedy expressed the hope that representatives of the two countries might meet at an early date to discuss ideas "for immediate projects of common action."38
Working mainly with the State Department, NASA assembled a long list of possibilities for cooperation. From that list four main proposals-[313] cooperation in satellite meteorology, spacecraft tracking, studies of the earth's magnetic field, and communications satellites-were selected and dispatched along with a number of other ideas to Khrushchev 7 March 1962. With uncharacteristic speed for the Russians, he replied within two weeks, furnishing a list of proposals and agreeing to a meeting of appropriate representatives to discuss the matter.39 President Kennedy named Hugh Dryden, deputy administrator of NASA, as the U.S. delegate. The USSR was represented by Anatoly A. Blagonravov. Between 27 and 29 March 1962, exploratory talks were held in New York City. More definitive talks in Geneva-which went on in May and June simultaneously with, but outside of, meetings of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space-led to a draft agreement 8 June 1962.40 After a period of review, both governments approved the agreement, and James Webb, administrator of NASA, and President Keldysh of the Soviet Academy of Sciences exchanged letters putting the agreement into effect on an agency-to-agency level. The initial agreement called for working together on three separate projects: (1) exchange of satellite weather data over a communications link to be set up between Washington and Moscow; (2) each country to launch a satellite instrumented with magnetometers to study the earth's magnetic field during the International Years of the Quiet Sun beginning in 1965, coordinating their orbits and exchanging magnetic field data including those obtained from ground-based instruments; and (3) cooperative communications experiments using the next U.S. Echo satellite to be launched.41
Responding to a Soviet initiative in May 1964, a fourth project was added-to publish a book, prepared jointly, reviewing past Soviet and U.S. work in space biology and medicine, also giving some attention to future problems.42 There was, however, no Soviet response to a suggestion Kennedy had put forth in a 20 September 1963 speech at the United Nations that the two countries consider joining forces to put a man on the moon. In this case the Soviet negativism was matched by that of the U.S. Congress, which quickly made known its distaste for the idea.
To implement the program agreed to in 1962, Dryden and Blagonravov continued to meet, in Rome during March 1963 and in Geneva the following May. Appropriate working groups were established. But it should be emphasized that the joint efforts were not integrated projects; they did not require putting together joint teams for preparing hardware, conducting launchings, analyzing data, or any such arrangement that might adversely affect one program if the other country failed to perform. Instead the projects were coordinated; the two national programs proceeded separately, but were to be conducted in such a way as to facilitate cooperative tests, as with Echo, or the exchange of data and information, as with the meteorology and magnetic field projects.43 The performance of the Soviet participants on these projects for many years is best described as indifferent.
[314] The primary interest to space science lay the magnetic field studies and the book on space medicine and biology. In the magnetic field project a difficulty arose that was typical. American scientists considered it essential to the program to exchange data on the position of the satellites when measurements were taken. Otherwise, the field data could not be properly interpreted. But the Soviet Union consistently refused, shying away from providing any data that might reveal the capabilities of its electronic tracking equipment. The USSR had not, in fact, accepted another U.S. suggestion-to cooperate in the tracking of spacecraft. This difficulty also appeared to affect the communications project, in that finally the Soviet participants would agree only to receiving signals reflected to them from Echo, refusing to transmit any. Work on the book progressed exceedingly slowly, publication finally being achieved in 1975.
The difficulties that lay in the way of working with the Soviet Union in anything approaching the fashion of the cooperative projects with Western nations were formidable. Repeated frustrations led Arnold Frutkin in 1963 to prepare a set of internal NASA notes on Soviet deficiencies in their dealings with the Committee on Space Research. Frutkin listed eight ways in which the Soviet members appeared to be not forthcoming in their participation in COSPAR international activities: a lack of promised information on the Soviet sounding-rocket program; at one COSPAR meeting no papers on the sterilization of planetary probes, even though the Soviet Union had itself proposed that there be such a discussion; failure of Soviet members to attend the first two meetings of the COSPAR Consultative Group on Potentially Harmful Effects of Space Experiments; lack of any specific information on the Soviet Cosmos satellites; Soviet attempts to introduce political issues into COSPAR deliberations, e.g., nuclear testing; failure to provide information on radio tracking stations; and bypassing screening arrangements for papers to be presented at COSPAR. All of this Frutkin felt added up to a "retrogression in Soviet attitudes toward, and participation in, COSPAR."44
Two years later, in his book International Cooperation in Space, Frutkin moderated his assessment somewhat, noting modest progress and urging imaginative, aggressive efforts-tempered with a proper sense of realism-to "widen and deepen the cooperation which has already been won in the space field."45 In spite of this commendable positivism, Frutkin's book brings out the stark contrast between the U.S. and Soviet space programs in openness and willingness to share with others. Frutkin once observed that he had written his book too early, a remark occasioned by the U.S.-Soviet cooperation of the 1970s, which included the joint docking mission of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Certainly a book written in the late 1970s on U.S.-USSR cooperation on space projects would have many more positive elements to present than a book published in 1965. But there [315] would also be a risk that the rockiness of the soil that had first to be tilled might be overlooked.