Even During the Cold War, Russian and U.S. Rocket Scientists Were Friends, But Now They’re No Longer Talking

U.S. and Soviet scientists worked together throughout the Cold War, but now, because of Crimea, those ties are being cut

A replica of Sputnik 1 at the National Air and Space Museum. NSSDC / NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Tensions over Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula recently annexed by Russia, are beginning to have political fallout, with Canada, the U.S. and the E.U. leveling sanctions against Russia. Even NASA, says the Washington Post, has had to sever ties:

The memo directs NASA officials to stop talking to their Russian counterparts. That means no e-mail, teleconferences, or bilateral meetings of any kind. The only exception applies to the International Space Station, where astronauts must continue living with each other.

The U.S. government can't cut cooperation over the ISS, because the U.S. has literally no other way to get astronauts to or from the space station. The decision to cut contact between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is striking, says the Post, because NASA has long been seen as a safe, a-political contact between the two countries:

NASA led the way in the space race of the 1960s, and later served as the basis for peaceful cooperation between Russia and the United States in the 1990s and 2000s.

But, in the light of the very early history of space exploration, the decision to cut American rocket scientists off from their Russian counterparts is even more striking.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. The little beeping satellite came out of nowhere. It surprised the world, terrified Americans, and single-handedly sparked the Space Race. Or, at least, that's the story we tell ourselves.

In his 2011 memoirs, rocket scientist George Ludwig, the man who under James Van Allen in the 1950s designed and built the instrument suite for Explorer 1, the United States' first satellite, describes a meeting held in Washington, D.C. From September 30th to October 5th, 1957, scientists participating in the International Geophysical Year gathered to discuss rockets, satellites, and all other manner of space research.

During the discussion following the oral presentation of one of the technical papers, a Soviet delegate made a passing comment about the timing for the first satellite launch. The Russian word was translated at the time as soon, which was taken by the listeners to mean soon on the time scale of the IGY. A more accurate translation of the Russian word would have tipped us off that the Soviet launch was imminent, literally, due at any moment. Having missed that subtlety, we did not anticipate that the first launch would occur only a few days later.

Not only were Soviet rocket scientists more than willing to share their secrets with U.S. scientists, Sputnik's existence was spurred, to a large extent, by the research aims of the International Geophysical Year, a collaborative research program that included both U.S. and Soviet researchers, says Ludwig. Scientists had an idea Sputnik was coming, even if everyone else seemed shocked.

Later still, space scientists carried their bonds through Cold War tensions.

In an interview, space physicist, satellite expert and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Geophysical Data Center Joe Allen told the tale of how scientists continued to collaborate, even when they probably shouldn't have:

One time, when I was attending a committee meeting in Moscow, one of them gave me a list of instruments that had been launched on a new satellite and said, “Put this very deeply within your papers, it's classified now."

...Later, I asked one of my Russian friends, “Am I likely to get into trouble for carrying all of these satellite images and data out of Russia?” He said I was a guest of the Academy of Sciences and I would never be bothered. Sure enough, I got back to the U.S. and gave the list to my boss, and we had queries from the intelligence community and military.

Even when politicians and militaries can't see eye-to-eye, scientists have a way of sticking it out. NASA, as an agency of the U.S. government, is not an a-political entity. But, as the Washington Post suggests, NASA has largely seemed able to dance above the fray. Now, it seems, it isn't.

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