Cold War Detente Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991

Hot-Tub Diplomacy and Star Wars

I’ve been reviewing documents from the Hoover Archives in connection with my latest project ( The ones I’ve posted here, with brief commentary and historical context, concern an organization of astronauts and cosmonauts called the Association of Space Explorers, which held its first Congress in Paris in October 1985.

Aleksei Leonov and Deke Slayton on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

The idea for the group emerged during informal conversations between cosmonauts and astronauts dating back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 — that “memorable handshake in space,” as the world press at the time put it. The end of detente, however, got in the way, first with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics, the Soviet boycott four years later of the Los Angeles games, Reagan’s announcement of the Star Wars program in March 1983, and the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean jet airliner in September 1983.

Rusty Schweickart

The chief American inspiration for this new fraternity of space travelers was Apollo 9 Lunar Module operator Russell (“Rusty”) Schweickart. Schweickart had an epiphany on his 1969 flight, converting from a hawk into a dove somewhere on the return trip from the Moon. After retiring from NASA, and while doing a stint as energy chief for Governor Jerry Brown, he  joined the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a gathering place for New Age proponents of peace, love, and universal consciousness. Joan Baez was one of its frequent guests. As Soviet/American relations soured in the early 1980s, the Institute implemented a program of “Hot Tub Diplomacy,” inviting cosmonauts and other prominent scientists and cultural figures for relaxing chats and encounters. They also arranged satellite link-ups — space bridges — between Soviet and American citizens which were broadcast on Soviet and American television. Those encounters inspired Schweickart, divorced and spending time on a houseboat near Sausalito, to refine the idea for an Association of Space Explorers. “Space will not be strategically neutral,” he later wrote in a private letter, “it will either be used by both nations in an attempt to assert superiority over the other, or, through mutual agreement and commitment it can be used by both nations to relieve East-West tensions and assure security.” (Hoover Archives, Association of Space Explorers, Folder 3).

From the perspective of the cynical 21st century, and from a few contemporaries, the group’s ideas seem touchingly utopian and naive. The association’s members believed the experience of seeing the Earth from outer space — a feeling of connectedness with the universe dubbed the Overview Effect — could help them promote peace, jointly explore the cosmos, and protect the planet’s environment. The Soviets were ecstatic, both for the potential political advantage they might derive from the organization and because many believed in the group’s message. That message dovetailed with the popular environmental ideas of the geologist Vladimir Vernadskii, a proponent of the Russian philosophy of Cosmism that had inspired many Russian rocket scientists; it also seemed to toe the official Soviet party line of peaceful coexistence, which the Soviets, probably sincerely, claimed was “not a short-term campaign, and not a tactical trick.” (Spartak Beglov, “Space Bridge of Detente,” Space World, November 1975, 27.)

Unfortunately for Schweickart, many Cold Warriors within the NASA astronaut corps and Reagan administration immediately attacked the idea as a naive project that would be exploited by the Soviets for propaganda advantage and possibly threaten national security.

After a debriefing with Kremlinologists at Columbia University, Schweickart traveled to Moscow to meet with Aleksei Leonov and other cosmonauts for discussions about finalizing the group’s creation. He left in April 1983 — just a few weeks after Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, which promoted a military vision of space that the group explicitly rejected.  Schweickart also picked up on that same popular culture reference, sometimes ending his correspondence with the words, “May the force be with you,” thus imagining himself as Hans Solo and the Reagan Cold Warriors, rather than the Soviet Union, as Darth Vader.

The letter below describes Schweickart’s impressions after returning from Moscow and Star City (one of the rare visits to Star City of any American astronaut before the late 1980s). It reveals both the common aspects of cosmonaut and astronaut culture as well as the differences. What they shared in common, as the letter suggests, is a love of drink and partying, “the Right Stuff.” But after touring the museum inside Star City Schweickart immediately noticed the far more romantic and sentimental spirit of Soviet cosmonautics. Nerdy American astronauts contrasted with exuberant and charismatic space-farers like Leonov, German Titov or Vladimir Dzhanibekov — all of whom dabbled in art and literature as well as matters scientific and technological.

"Icarus" by the Cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov

Leonov was a member of the USSR Artist Union before he made his flight and Dzhanibekov was a deft painter, brilliant radio engineer, caricaturist of his fellow cosmonauts, and a great fan of Shakespeare, whose sonnets he could recite in English. Soviet sentimentality and romanticism was, as Schweickart notes below, “a long way from our own cultural habits.” By comparison, the Americans seemed blandly technocratic — technically brilliant but lacking that Russian soul, as the Russians like to say.


















Another Schweickart letter, sent to a national security expert at MIT from whom Schweickart received a briefing before leaving for Moscow, provides more trip impressions. Schweickart and the Americans were wary of press coverage — for fear that it would invite the criticism that the American participants were communist sympathizers and unpatriotic, since the group now seemed to be aligned directly against the recently announced Star Wars initiative. The Soviets, on the other hand, were eager to publicize the effort as an indication of peace-loving, anti-militarists getting together to fight attempts by imperialists to militarize space. Also interesting is Schweickart’s observation about the seeming ignorance of his cosmonaut colleagues — he refers to their position as “compartmentalized.” Schweickart had the impression that the cosmonauts had little knowledge of their own space program and that they may not have heard of Star Wars. Whether his impression is correct, or whether the cosmonauts simply feigned ignorance, is hard to say. Schweickart also wanted to raise these issues with the wily Georgii Arbatov, the Americanist and Director of the Soviet USA and Canada Institute, who had worked closely with the Esalen Institute and its Hot-Tub diplomacy efforts.


































Finally, here is the MIT Professor’s letter to Schweickart about the Soviets before the Moscow meeting with cosmonauts. It is followed by his response to Schweickart’s letter above. The first letter speculates on the origins of the Star Wars initiative– that the idea was first presented to Reagan by the arch-conservative beer magnate Joseph Coors, who financed Reagan’s presidential campaign. The second expresses little surprise at the ignorance of the Soviet cosmonauts about their own space program and provides a characterization of Arbatov the master apparatchik.



















































I’m not sure what I will be doing with this material. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of “citizen” or “Hot-Tub” diplomacy, though there is clearly an asymmetry between the Soviet and American sides in this “dance,” as Schweickart put it, since the Soviet participants, unlike the American ones, could not present themselves as private citizens. Meanwhile, NASA forbade all active astronauts from participating and made it clear that the group’s retired astronaut participants only represented themselves as private individuals and not NASA or its astronaut corps.  To what extent the American participants were free actors — as they liked to say about themselves in comparison to their Soviet comrades in the cosmos — remains debatable. But it is interesting to see these space travelers imagining themselves as transnational subjects who could somehow rise above the political and national contexts in which they lived — and create a new kind of community beyond and above the nation-state.

3 replies on “Hot-Tub Diplomacy and Star Wars”

This is really interesting, Andy. Your last point on asymmetry is especially interesting as your earlier discussion of out-of-the-loop astronauts seems to contrast with a point made by Matthew Evangelista in _Unarmed Forces_. Evangelista sees Soviet physicists as more connected and influential in their quest for, broadly speaking, peace and transnationalism, than American ones during the same period. Is this a real contrast or just an apparent one? Does it matter much?

Thanks for the reminder about Evangelista’s physicists. That is an interesting contrast I hadn’t thought about and food for thought. How much the Soviet cosmonauts were out of the loop, as compared to the American perception that they were, is unclear. But my impression is that many cosmonauts, whatever their level of knowledge about broader Soviet space policies, were very open to joint projects and ventures and were generally quite fed up with the whole secrecy obsession. The view from space — of a planet without borders — really seems to have reinforced certain notions of Soviet internationalism as well as Cosmist ideas about a universal civilization and protecting biospheres (the 1980s biosphere projects in Arizona were inspired by similar such experiments in Krasnoiarsk in the 1970s). And this, in turn, led them to identify with space as a de-militarized zone where things impossible on Earth, because of the Cold War, might somehow become doable in and through space exploration. By contrast, Schweickart seems to have been rather exceptional; many of his American colleagues, retired and active astronauts, were quite hostile to the idea of a transnational association of space travelers that might challenge Reagan’s militarization of space initiatives (often for fear of losing the opportunity to take a trip into space but also because of their anti-Soviet attitudes).

Guessing your reports note that astronaut Tom Stafford was a pallbearer at funeral for Soyuz 11 cosmonauts and why he was chosen to go there.

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