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US astronauts wanted to meet Soviet counterparts in late 1950s, NASA historians say

April 12, 2015, 11:39 UTC+3 WASHINGTON
"America's astronauts were clearly interested in meeting their Soviet counterparts," Barry told TASS ahead of Cosmonautics Day marked in Russia on April 12
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WASHINGTON, April 12. /TASS/. American astronauts were eager to make contact and exchange information with Soviet cosmonauts long before Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into space, but the Cold War and the so-called "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union were hampering their cooperation in space, said NASA's chief historian, William Barry.

"America's astronauts were clearly interested in meeting their Soviet counterparts," Barry told TASS ahead of Cosmonautics Day marked in Russia on April 12.

"In October 1959, the Mercury 7 astronauts wrote a memorandum suggesting mutual visits with their cosmonaut counterparts," he said, citing little-known NASA documents.

NASA's first group of astronauts wanted the United States to "take the initiative in sponsoring international cooperation in the manned space field", but as follows from the documents, the purpose of those visits was purely pragmatic.

"Certain action at this time might place us in a better position to gain information about their program and also take the propaganda initiative away from the Russians with regard to manned space flight," the seven Mercury astronauts wrote in the memorandum.

"There appears to be little we could lose, in that practically all of the details of Project Mercury are already public domain and have been covered repeatedly in the press. The Russian program, on the other hand, has been secret, so anything we could learn would be new information," the memorandum said.

However, "these efforts were discouraged by NASA and White House leadership," it said. It was not until the 1960s that NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met each other in various places around the world.

The first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who spent months travelling the world as a celebrity after his historic flight aboard the Vostok spaceship on April 12, 1962, visited nearly 30 countries, though not the United States. The cosmonaut was in the U.S. territory in 1963 but only at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The first Soviet cosmonaut who had a chance to talk with American counterparts was cosmonaut Gherman Titov, Moscow's second man in space and the first person to spend more than a day in orbit on board the Vostok-2 spacecraft.

"The first known astronaut-cosmonaut meeting happened in Washington, DC in May 1962, when Gherman Titov came to the COSPAR meeting. They had a meeting at the White House with President Kennedy and a barbecue at the [astronaut John] Glenn home in Arlington," Barry said.

Titov held a news conference in Washington, but as documents show, "he was circumspect in answering questions about his Vostok craft and would discuss space cooperation only in the context of disarmament".

"The first Gagarin-U.S. astronaut meeting that we know of came at the Paris Air Show in 1965, when Gemini IV astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White met Gagarin along with Vice President Hubert Humphrey," said Barry.

Gagarin and the three Americans exchanged "a very cool handshake", the documents say.

"These first meetings had been shadowed by the Cold War," U.S. historians note. But "as the years passed, the cosmonauts and astronauts began to socialize more freely", they say.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975 was the first joint flight by the American and Soviet Cold War enemies.

A U.S. module carrying three astronauts successfully docked with a Soyuz capsule carrying two cosmonauts in orbit, and signalled the end to the Space Race.

This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the project.

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