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Building the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance Took Trust, Insight

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Fri Jun 6, 2014 7:11 pm via: NASA
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As a young American fighter pilot during the Cold War years, Jim Van Laak wondered how the United States and the Soviet Union could have reached such a state of confrontation.

“Our countries made an absolutely enormous commitment to fight each other,” he said, recalling the days when he was poised to leap into his F-106 interceptor at a moment’s notice. In that era, America was always bracing for an attack from the Soviet Union and vice versa.

Jim Van Laak, former manager of operations for the International Space Station, spoke at NASA's Langley Research Center about building a working relationship with his counterparts in the Russian space program. Image Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Jim Van Laak, former manager of operations for the International Space Station, spoke at NASA's Langley Research Center about building a working relationship with his counterparts in the Russian space program. Image Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

“I wondered, ‘what in the world motivates us to do that? What is it about the human race that makes us want to do that? Can we ever overcome it? Can we ever come to trust one another?’”

Years later, after leaving the Air Force and joining NASA, Van Laak became a key figure in American-Russian space cooperation, a leader adept at crossing this deep cultural and political divide.

He learned first hand that, yes, citizens of two countries with a history of struggle could find a way to move beyond a painful past and explore space together for the benefit of mankind.  The secret, he found, was to work together on something hard.

Speaking as part of NASA Langley Research Center’s Colloquium and Sigma lecture series, Van Laak described his remarkable experiences working on international space projects.

He spent three years as deputy director of the Shuttle-Mir program, an effort that sent seven American astronauts to live and work on the Russian space station. After that, Van Laak became the manager of operations for International Space Station (ISS). With that effort, he was responsible for creating a single integrated team with the Russians and other international partners to build and operate this pioneering spacecraft.  Van Laak currently works at NASA Langley’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

During his talk, titled “Putting the I in the ISS: Fostering Space Cooperation with the Russians,” Van Laak said that the working relationship between the two countries remains strong despite recent political turbulence related to Russia’s actions in and around the Ukraine.

“People say, ‘What’s going on in Ukraine? How does that impact the space station?’ It has no impact on the team at all. Zero,” Van Laak said. “The team is solid as a rock.”

Getting to that point wasn’t always easy, though. Van Laak’s talk detailed a list of snags, pitfalls and obstacles overcome by two space programs, ranging from simple disagreements over Wi-Fi technology to serious communication fumbles. Although American-Soviet space cooperation began in the 1970s with the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Shuttle-Mir and ISS joint missions required cooperation on a grander scale.

“This was the hard part — overcoming the human weakness of the Cold War mentality,” Van Laak said. “I grew up in the Cold War. My colleagues grew up in the Cold War … Getting people to trust each other, to open up and share and communicate with each other, those were critical things that had to be done if we were going to build the team that we needed in order to operate this ship.”

Learning to appreciate the Russian’s sensibilities and goals was key, he said. For example, in 1995, when the space shuttle Atlantis was preparing to dock with Mir, NASA mission flight controllers made a last minute decision to extend the shuttle’s robotic arm so its camera would provide another vantage point on the operation.

“It was a good idea, except for the fact that they didn’t talk to the Russians about it,” Van Laak said. The Russians feared it would hit and damage a solar array. “It didn’t. It worked out fine. But we screwed up. We did not talk to the Russians. We did not respect them and it hurt our relationship. But, as always happens, we grow and we learned.”

Van Laak learned the value of making personal connections. In 1996, he traveled to Korolev, north of Moscow, to untangle a disagreement over a proposed Wi-Fi test Americans wanted to try on Mir. At first, a Russian technology expert dug in his heels, refusing to allow experiments to move forward.

Through an interpreter, Van Laak asked the Russian engineer if he had children. He responded that, yes, he had two.

“I asked him, ‘Do you want them to grow up in the world we grew up in, with our nations pointing weapons at each other?’ He said, ‘nyet.’

“I said, ‘we’ve been given this opportunity to make this constructive, cooperative relationship. I don’t want to hurt your spaceship, but I do want to do this experiment. Can we please find a way to do it?’” The Russian agreed and the work moved forward.

Always, the biggest challenge was human frailty.

“Doris [Hamill, Van Laak’s wife] loves to remind me that the single most operative word for many parts of all this was hubris,” Van Laak said. The word means exaggerated pride or self-confidence.

“It was on both sides,” Van Laak said. “It took a long time, but we learned from each other.”

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