CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Fifteen years ago Tuesday, three American astronauts linked up with two Russian cosmonauts for an unprecedented orbital show of international cooperation that highlighted the era of detente.
Astronaut Thomas Stafford and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov shook hands in space at 3:19 p.m. EDT on July 17, 1975, in an American-built airlock connecting a leftover Apollo moon capsule and the Russian Soyuz. The handshake climaxed more than three years of work on two continents.
Looking on that day in orbit were Vance Brand, now a space shuttle commander in training for his fourth flight, Donald 'Deke' Slayton, one of the original Mercury astronauts, and Russian cosmonaut Valery Kubasov.
Millions looked on from below and listenedas President Gerald Ford and Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev congratulated the spacemen.
'Since the time of the launch of the first Sputnik and the first flight of man into space, space has become an arena of international cooperation,' Brezhnev said in a statement.
'Detente, positive movement ahead in Soviet-American relations, has created the proper conditions for the first international space flight.'
Leonov, Kubasov, Slayton and Stafford plan to attend several ceremonies this week marking the 15th anniversary of the only joint U.S.-Soviet space flight and will hold a news conference July 26 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Brand, currently in training to command the grounded shuttle Columbia, said in an interview he would be unable to participate because of work to prepare for his fourth space mission.
In an earlier interview, Brand had said the work leading up to the flight helped American scientists and engineers get to know their Soviet counterparts in ways that would not have been otherwise possible.
'I think from our point of view, one of the biggest benefits was that we got to know these people and understand a little bit what their capabilities are and how they think,' Brand said.
'I think we sort of, at that time, got a crack in the door through the Iron Curtain which had been closed for so long, to get a better understanding of how they approach things in this technical, scientific world we live in.'
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project grew out of a 1972 agreement that called for the United States and the Soviet Union to develop a common space 'docking' system that would allow American and Soviet spacecraft to link up in space, primarily for emergencies.
In reality, NASA's Apollo program was over, the space agency was gearing up for the shuttle program and the Apollo-Soyuz flight was a one-shot, high-profile demonstration of detente on the high frontier, not a serious effort to develop common space hardware.
Leonov and Kubasov blasted off at 8:20 a.m. EDT on July 15, 1975, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Central Asia. Stafford, Brand and Slayton took off aboard a Saturn 1B rocket later that day at 3:50 p.m.
With the Soyuz serving as a target, the American astronauts completed a rendezvous two days later, docking their Apollo capsule with the Soviet Soyuz at 12:09 p.m. on July 17. The historic 'handshake in space' occurred three hours and 10 minutes later.
After two days of joint operations, the two craft separated and the Soyuz carrying Leonov and Kubasov landed in the Soviet Union July 21. The last Apollo moonship splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 5:19 p.m. July 25, 270 miles west of Hawaii.