Are the Russians friends or foes?

U.S. student interns with cosmonaut Sergie Krikalev in July 2011

U.S. student interns with cosmonaut Sergie Krikalev in July 2011

From the crisis in Syria to the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record, the U.S.-Russia relationship has become undeniably more confrontational in the last year. Considering the current circumstances and a long history of harsh competition, why would any American think that the Russians are our friends?

As a baby boomer that grew up dealing with the terror of the Cold War, this adversarial attitude is nothing new. I practiced the “duck and cover” drills throughout elementary school. I vividly remember the sirens in my neighborhood warning of imminent destruction from nuclear ballistic missiles launched by the Soviet Union, later branded the evil empire by President Reagan. “Better Dead than Red” was the mantra. “Mutual Assured Destruction” was the reality.

However, the United States and Russia have been able to replace inflammatory rhetoric and strategic impasse with positive engagement and even partnership in one key area. What began as yet another arena for superpower competition has become one of the strongest foundations for continued U.S.-Russian cooperation.

I remember hearing the “beep-beep-beep” of Sputnik 1 as it orbited around the Earth in 1957 — the beginning of the “Space Race”. On April 12, 1961 Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man launched into space — followed by the suborbital flight of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, on May 5, 1961. Less than three weeks later on May 25, 1961 President Kennedy declared that the U.S. would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade in an address to the U.S. Congress.

Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union reached the boiling point in October 1962 when President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade effectively preventing the U.S.S.R. from delivering nuclear missiles to Cuba — an act that could have provoked World War III and the destruction of life on Earth. Thank goodness that a catholic and an atheist could both agree that the end of the world was not in either country’s best interests.

Less than a year later in August 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Then on September 20, 1963 in a speech before the United Nations, President Kennedy made a stunning offer to the Soviets to combine our resources and go to the Moon together. The Soviets declined and both countries developed their space programs separately.

In an attempt to reduce the tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in April 1972 both countries signed the Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes and in July 1975 the last Apollo flight was launched on a mission to dock with the Soviet Union’s Soyuz spacecraft. After a successful docking, the first international handshake in space was made by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and astronaut Tom Stafford. The leaders of both countries, Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford, called the Apollo-Soyuz crews to congratulate them for a successful demonstration of international cooperation in space. However, it would be another 19 years before Russians and Americans would again fly together in space.

In June 1992 President George H.W. Bush and the president of the newly formed Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, signed the Agreement Between the United States and the Russian Federation Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. In September 1993 it was announced that the United States and Russia agreed to a two-phase program to build a jointly operated space station.

Phase one was designed to not only share experience and technical knowledge but to also foster a spirit of cooperation. In February 1994 Sergei Krikalev became the first cosmonaut to fly aboard the space shuttle which was under the command of astronaut Charles Bolden. Today, Krikalev is the director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and Bolden is the director of NASA. They remain close friends. This flight was followed by one flyby and nine docking missions between American Space Shuttles and the Russian Mir space station from 1995 to 1997. In March 1995 Norman Thagard became the first astronaut to fly in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Phase two entailed the building of the International Space Station (ISS). In December 4, 1998 the Space Shuttle carried the first U.S. module, the Unity node, to the Russian Zarya module already in orbit. Once the modules were docked, shuttle commander Robert Cabana and cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev entered the Unity node together fostering a new era of collaborative space exploration. Krikalev returned to the ISS on November 2, 2000 as a crew member on Expedition 1 and the ISS has been continuously manned since them.

Over the years both the Space Shuttle and Soyuz spacecrafts have experienced problems which grounded them for extended periods of time. However, the partnership has not failed as each country has supported the other in times of need. This spirit of cooperation in space is responsible for the continuous habitation of the ISS for nearly 13 years. With the permanent grounding of the Space Shuttle in 2011 the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only means to fly American astronauts to the ISS. The Russians have become valuable and reliable partners in space. In an address at a Baker Institute event in 2001 at Rice University, President Putin suggested that the cooperation in space between the United States and Russia should become the model to promote cooperation in other areas of mutual interest.

Over the last three summers, the Baker Institute has worked to strengthen this partnership by sending 28 students from five U.S. universities to participate in Bauman Moscow State Technical University’s international workshop Space Development: Theory and Practice. The two-week program includes visits to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City and Russian Mission Control in Korolev where the students pose questions to the cosmonauts aboard the ISS in a live video conference. Sergei Krikalev, other cosmonauts, and an occasional astronaut spend hours with the students sharing their experiences and promoting international cooperation in space. They also spend quality time each day visiting museums, cathedrals, and monuments to learn about Russian history and culture. This is the first generation of university students that were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and they do not carry the baggage of the Cold War. They collaborate with one another on theoretical space missions and establish friendships that cross cultural and historical boundaries. Many of the U.S. students describe the experience as life-changing and note the warmth and hospitality of the Russian people.

We are living in a new world. We have moved from one of impending mutual destruction to one of shared values, hopes, and dreams. The Russians have been trustworthy partners in space and this successful relationship should lead our two nations beyond the fears and conflicts of the past and into a new era of respect and cooperation as friends — for the benefit of all mankind.

Jason Lyons, a Rice University alumnus, is the Baker Institute logistics manager and Moscow Summer Intern Program Coordinator.