Test pilot and astronaut Joe Engle meets the Academician

[ by Charles Cameron — how an exchange of Cold War stories broke the ice for US-Soviet cooperation in space ]


Joe H Engle, X-15 test pilot and Space Shuttle pilot


I was talking with a friend, ML, and she told me this story of her cousin, USAF Maj Gen Joe Engle (ret’d), test pilot and astronaut, which I reproduce below from a NASA oral history interview. It is the tale of the exchange between diplomatic enemies which opened up joint US-Soviet NASA-MIR collaboration in space — an extraordinary, exemplary dialog. I believe Zenpundit readers will find it powerful reading.


To set the stage..

When Engle was asked to go to Russia to prepare the way for a joint commission between the US and Soviets to explore the possibilities of space cooperation, he remembers saying:

I was about as right-wing military as could be expected and I had spent a good deal of my professional career on the end of a runway sitting alert to go after them. I said, “I think I’m probably the last guy in the world that you want on that or that they want to see come and work with them.”

To which the response was:

“Well … that’s really kind of why I want you there, as a piece of litmus paper. … I figure if you can make it work and if they can work with you, why, then anybody will work.”

So Joe Engle went to Russia in January 1995, and things did not begin smoothly — but I’ll give you the rest of the tale in his words:

I went over with a group of two or three people and we had scheduled visits with the deputy head of Rosaviacosmos, RSA [Russian Space Agency], and RSC [Sergei Pavlovich Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation], Energia. The gentleman who had been identified to be Tom [ie Gen Tom Stafford]’s counterpart on the joint commission, who was Academician [Vladimir F.] Utkin, who is the most respected rocketeer that Russia’s ever had — well, next to Korolev, but most respected living one, an old gentleman, just a big bear of a guy.

We were not doing well at all. Mr. [Boris D.] Ostroumov had essentially thrown us out of RSA and Mr. Semyanov did throw us out of Energia. He didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t want any independent—they didn’t know what an independent review group was. It wasman entirely foreign concept to the Russians. They were more prone to the stovepipe, of this enterprise has this task to do and you turn the finished product out and it will fit with this finished product, and you don’t talk to each other. Everybody was very, very closed door about it. So they didn’t want the idea of anybody looking over their shoulder, even their own people looking over each other’s shoulder.

It was a difficult concept to sell, and we were just about to say, “This doesn’t look like it’s going to work.” In fact, I had called Tom from over there and he said, “Well, pack it up and come home.” He said, “We’re not going to waste our time on this.”

And I remember telling him, “Well, we got one more guy, the guy you’re supposed to be the co-chair with, and I’ll go see him, because we can’t move the flight up anyway. It costs too much money to move the flight up.”

So we went to Academician Utkin’s, and he was pretty much the same way. I remember going in and being told to go in and sit in his office and wait for him. He walked in, and at that time, they didn’t have phones with pushbuttons. Each line had a separate phone, so he had fourteen phones on his desk, I remember, and a big map, a wall map of the Soviet Union. It was still Soviet Union then to them. Finally he walked in, strutted in, and sat down at his desk and started making some phone calls. We were sitting there, [William] Bill Vantine was with me and there was an interpreter present.

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