It’s not many museums that would boast about having a bottle of Russian Vodka on exhibit, but the Stafford Air and Space Museum proudly uses one as a centerpiece of a wonderful display with a great story behind it.
Forty years ago, the world still hung on the edge of nuclear annihilation as the world’s two great superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—continued to square off in a “Cold War” that had lasted for nearly a half century. World tensions remained on a continuous hair-trigger as the potential of nuclear war and the concept of “mutual destruction” played out—several times coming to the brink of World War III.
In an effort to explore ways to defuse this dangerous tension, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev took great political risks by signing an agreement in 1972 to attempt a joint spaceflight in which three American astronauts would link up in space with two Soviet Cosmonauts in a mission that would become known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, or ASTP. A great deal was put on the line with this attempted agreement. A successful mission could serve as a template for additional joint programs that could further thaw the “Cold War” stand–off. On the other hand, a failure of pulling this complex mission off could further plunge the world into a deeper political divide.
To create trust among two countries that had bitter enemies for decades, with two radically different ideologies and beliefs, was going to be a monumental challenge. Great thought was given by both countries to the personalities they would select for their flight crews. The Soviets selected two veteran space flyers—flight engineer Valeri Kubasov, and as their commander, legendary cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space. The Americans would select General Tom Stafford, one of this nation’s most experienced and skilled astronauts to command two rookie astronauts, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand. Close friendships were quickly forged among these five individuals that would transcend all political divisions, and would establish the mind-set for the thousands of other engineers, technicians, and scientists on both sides that were tasked in making the ASTP mission a success.
In July, 1975, both crews—working together as an international team—successfully linked their spacecraft together in Earth orbit in an unprecedented international event. As the hatch door opened, and the crews could see each other in person for the first time in the mission, Leonov and Stafford came together and shook hands. It would become known as the famous “handshake in space.” This mission would prove to both countries that, in spite of their differences, common ground could be found to work together in peace and harmony. For his extraordinary efforts in leading this effort, Tom Stafford would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, many historians credit the ASTP mission as the beginning of the end of the “Cold War” and one of its many legacies was the creation of the International Space Station in which Russians and Americans along with astronauts from more than a dozen countries, have continually flown together in space, conducting countless scientific experiments and making discoveries that will benefit all of mankind.
The friendships of the Apollo-Soyuz crew members would transcend time. All five would continue to consider each other as “brothers” and would often gather long after their retirements. A lasting symbol of this friendship, and the impact it would have on world history, is an ordinary, unopened bottle of Russian Vodka on display in the Stafford Museum’s Apollo Gallery. Borrowing a time-honored military tradition called a “Tontine,” all five of the Apollo-Soyuz crew, in a spirit of brotherhood, signed the bottle of vodka shortly before the launch of the ASTP mission in 1975. The bottle will remain unopened as long as there is at least two crew members sill living. When the time comes when only a single crew member remains, he will journey to the Stafford Museum, open the bottle of Vodka on display, and make a final toast to his four “brothers” that went before, and to the incredible legacy they had left to the world. Today, three of the ASTP crew still survive—Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Alexei Leonov. Deke Slayton died of a malignant brain tumor in 1993 and Valeri Kubasov died of heart problems earlier this year.