Cold War Rivals Joined Forces after Historic Gagarin Flight in 1961 to Pursue Broader Shared Interests, Documents Show
Current Collaboration on International Space Station Has Its Roots in JFK-Khrushchev Meeting of Minds
Edited by Sarah Dunn
Washington, D.C., April 12, 2021 – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight 60 years ago, which made him the first human in space, prompted President John F. Kennedy to advance an unusual proposal – that the two superpowers combine forces to cooperate in space. In a congratulatory letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive, Kennedy expressed the hope that “our nations [can] work together” in the “continuing quest for knowledge of outer space.”
Kennedy’s letter is one of many records in the American and Russian archives that show that the two ideological rivals have not only engaged in a space race but have also cooperated for decades. In fact, as the ongoing joint activities involving the International Space Station demonstrate, space has been one of the few spheres of collaboration that have survived the trials and tensions of the Cold War, keeping both countries engaged in constructive competition as well as in joint efforts to expand human frontiers.
Today’s posting begins a two-part series exploring this often-overlooked chapter in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia. The materials in the first tranche cover events from Gagarin’s flight to the celebrated Apollo-Soyuz mission. The second posting in early May will deal with the post-Cold War period.