For the first 15 years of my adult life, I trained to fight the Russians as a fighter pilot during the Cold War. On April 4th, 2011, two and a half decades after joining the U.S. Air Force, I stood at the base of a rocket that would take me and my two Russian crewmates, Sasha Samokutyaev and Andrei Borisenko, into space from the same launchpad as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, fifty years before.
The Transformative Power of Acting on Common Ground
On July 17, 1975, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and American astronaut Tom Stafford reached across the hatches of their docked Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft and shook hands, symbolically ending the space race between our nations that began in 1957.
A two-dimensional mindset—a narrow, flat perspective of the world that encourages an us-vs.-them mentality—exists today in many political, business and interpersonal situations. Tweet This Quote
It was the beginning of a movement toward the collaborative peaceful exploration of space—which was initiated by a commitment in 1972 between the Soviet Union and the U.S. to conduct a joint space mission. The Apollo-Soyuz mission which took place on the heels of the tumultuous fall of Saigon was heralded as a breakthrough in Cold War diplomacy, but the collaboration was short-lived and the end of the mission marked the end of the two countries’ real cooperation in human spaceflight for nearly two decades.
Although it took two decades to finally act on this first step toward cooperation, the story of the U.S.-Russia space collaboration—that started with a handshake in space 40 years ago on this day—led to the largest peacetime international collaboration in history. And it illustrates both harmful and beneficial mindsets that have major implications for individuals and partnerships today.
Two-dimensional mindset—the path to failure
A two-dimensional mindset—a narrow, flat perspective of the world that encourages an us-vs.-them mentality—exists today in many political, business and interpersonal situations.
This mindset attempts to undermine emerging cooperative agreements by ignoring or discrediting any merit in the position of the other side. It says, “if we acknowledge merit they will gain and therefore we lose.” And the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission had its share of detractors. There was a sentiment by some that the U.S. had no business cooperating with the Russians on anything until we overcame our differences—a sentiment that hindered progress for years.
A two-dimensional mindset considers common ground as leverage to force the things in contention upon the other party rather than use that common ground—however small it may be—as a launchpad to act on together. Tweet This Quote
A two-dimensional mindset considers common ground as leverage to force the things in contention upon the other party rather than use that common ground—however small it may be—as a launchpad to act on together. This mindset is counterproductive and leads to stagnation and defense of the status quo.
Following the Apollo-Soyuz mission—during the two-decade Russian-U.S. hiatus in human spaceflight cooperation—the Soviets continued their pioneering work in space station launch and design. Meanwhile, the United States was building its space shuttle and pursuing its goal of building Space Station Freedom. Having flown on the Space Shuttle I can personally attest to its amazing capabilities, but unfortunately, it never reached its promise of being inexpensive to fly dozens of times a year. Because of this shortfall—as well as a change in political will and funding—the dream of constructing a massive, highly capable U.S. Space Station Freedom languished. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent financial problems, it was also apparent that the Russians would not be able to afford to launch and assemble their planned space station, Mir-2.
Even though they had established common ground and found a path to work together in the past, two-dimensional thinking on both sides put cooperation on the back burner—placing both programs at the brink of failure.
An Orbital Perspective—the path to progress
By the early 1990s common ground in space exploration was found for the first time since 1972 and the time was ripe to transition to a path of collaboration—an orbital perspective that brings long-term goals and the global effects of decision making into the forefront. The rudiments of the planned Space Station Freedom and the planned Space Station Mir-2 could be repurposed into an international program.
This willingness to work together on common goals led to the construction of the most complex structure ever built in space, the International Space Station (ISS). Tweet This Quote
This willingness to work together on common goals led to the construction of the most complex structure ever built in space, the International Space Station (ISS).
When the agreement was made to bring the Russians into the space station program, there were still detractors on both sides attempting to dismantle cooperation—they thought their side was being used to simply save the other’s. Fortunately, decision makers were able to zoom out to an orbital perspective and look at cooperation in the three-dimensional, real world rather than focus on the imperfections of first steps.
The U.S.-Russian space partnership has stayed strong through almost 15 years of continuous human presence onboard the ISS. And when catastrophe hit, collaboration saved the program. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry in 2003 killing the entire crew, our partnership with the Russians allowed us to continue to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.
The success of the International Space Station—a partnership between 15 nations including the U.S. and Russia—and all the benefits the ISS program brings to the world are the direct result of the decision made by the partner nations to work together on common ground starting with a handshake in space forty years ago today.
Once we began to work on things that we agreed on, personal relationships were built, trust developed, and this platform can now potentially be used to address the things that we don’t agree on. Tweet This Quote
Our successful international cooperation in space exploration has taught us that a proven path to a more peaceful and productive world is to seek the things we agree on, the low hanging fruit, and then use those things to open dialog and begin a discussion. So, instead of citing imperfections as a rallying cry to dismantle the cooperation, we view them as areas to focus our effort and attention; we view them as opportunity for constructive contribution.
Once we began to work on things that we agreed on, personal relationships were built, trust developed, and this platform can now potentially be used to address the things that we don’t agree on.
Speaking on the significance of the Apollo-Soyuz agreement, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev noted:
As I stood at the launchpad in 2011, in a previously top-secret Soviet military installation as a fully integrated member of a Russian spacecraft crew, I looked up and saw an American flag painted on the rocket. This compelling example of the transformative power of finding common ground was made possible by a foundation of cooperation that began with a handshake between an American and a Russian forty years ago, today.