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Program Chronicles Cold War Space Race between United States & Soviet Union

Former Astronauts John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Tom Stafford & Alexei Leonov Interviewed

Special to Air Tomorrow Afternoon during Olympic Coverage on NBC

SOCHI, Russia – Feb. 14, 2014 – With the Olympic Winter Games taking place in Sochi, Russia, NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw chronicles the Cold War space race that took place during the 1950s, 60s and 70s between the United States and the Soviet Union in a special, Space Race, that will air tomorrow afternoon within NBC’s Olympic coverage, which begins at 3 p.m. ET/PT.

The special examines the most memorable moments of the space race, including Sputnik; Alexei Leonov’s first-ever spacewalk; the Apollo 11 moon landing; and the joint U.S.-Soviet “Apollo-Soyuz” mission in 1975 that, according to astronaut Tom Stafford, ended the race.

Brokaw and NBC Olympics’ production team interviewed former U.S. astronauts John Glenn, Jim Lovell, and Stafford; former Soviet cosmonaut Leonov; and Natalya Koroleva, the daughter of Sergei Korolev, the man behind the Soviet space program.

“It has become a tradition for us to recount a major news story that occurred between the U.S. and Olympic host country, and the space race was one of the defining events of the 20th century,” says NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell. “Tom Brokaw is the perfect voice to guide us through this journey, telling a powerful story through interviews with astronauts, cosmonauts, historians, and family members of those intimately involved in this epic contest. ‘Space Race’ will give our audience a fresh perspective on how the Russian people experienced the race and, to a degree, the Cold War.”

The program also recounts the story of Stafford and Leonov, who maintain the most unlikely of friendships. The two men were enemy fighter pilots on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall, traveled into space for their respective countries, and then built a profound friendship through the journey they took together for the “Apollo-Soyuz” mission, which culminated with their shaking hands in space, 144 miles above Earth.

“The joint American-Soviet space mission was a perfect symbol of the historic changes in the world of deeply divided ideologies and nuclear threats,” says Brokaw. “We went from pointing missiles at each other to exploring the heavens together – and the men who pulled it off, cosmonauts and astronauts, all had the right stuff. They became life-long friends. It’s how the world should work all the time.”

“Space Race” is the latest installment of NBC Olympics’ tradition of producing a news-themed special involving the United States and the host country. For Vancouver, NBC Olympics produced “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” which chronicled the story of Canadians in Gander, Newfoundland, who took in stranded passengers when nearly 40 jumbo jets landed in their small town of 10,000 on 9/11. “Their Finest Hour” aired during the London Olympics and told the story of how the U.S. and Britain came together in WWII, including the British resolve during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

To watch a preview, click here.



Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union began a power struggle with apocalyptic implications.

Glenn: “(Former Soviet leader Joseph) Stalin said that Democracy and Communism could not live in the same world together. And they set out to do us in.”


In order to compete with the U.S. in the impending space race, Stalin brought back a man he had banished to Siberia, Sergei Korolev, who would lead their space program and accomplish numerous space ‘firsts’, including orbiting the first unmanned satellite, Sputnik, putting the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and Leonov’s first spacewalk.

Stafford: “To the rest of the world, it looked like the Soviet Union had leaped way ahead of us.”

Leonov on his historic spacewalk: “I had a sensation of limitless space…I was just a little speck of sand compared to that infinity.”

Glenn on being the first American to orbit the Earth and the heroic welcome he received upon his return: “We began to get an idea that this was something that really was important to the people of this country.”


In 1966, the Soviet space program was dealt a major blow when Kovolev died from complications from what had been believed to be a routine operation. His identity once kept so secret even his cosmonauts did not know who he was, Korolev was honored with a massive funeral in Moscow’s Red Square.

Leonov: “In the full meaning of this word, I can say that we became…orphans. There was not such a leader in the next 30 years.”

Without its chief designer, the Soviet program stalled while the U.S. powered on, ultimately producing the historic Apollo 11 moon landing.

Soviet historian Pavel Felgenhauer on the U.S. moon landing: “The psychological shock was very serious, because everyone understood that we’re not number one anymore.”


While the U.S. had taken the lead in the space race, the two nations were still enemies.

Stafford: “Each country had four to six thousand strategic nuclear weapons aimed at each other, plus thousands of tactical nuclear weapons.”

But in 1972, President Richard Nixon made an almost unthinkable diplomatic journey to Moscow. In a sign of good faith, the two nations made plans for a joint “Apollo-Soyouz” mission, with the goal of connecting the two nations in space.

Stafford and Leonov were anointed the leaders of their respective nation’s crews, which would take off separately and then connect in space, 144 miles above earth. They met each other in both the U.S. in Russia prior to departing for space.

Stafford on his initial impression of Russians: “My God, they’re more like Americans than practically any other nation I’ve seen.”

Leonev on what he said over the radio one morning from space: “Good morning, America. It is me. I am Russian Colonel Alexei Leonov.”

Stafford: “It was, in a way, the end of the space race.”