Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Great Apollo-Soyuz Monument Caper

Rick Pirko and the Great Apollo-Soyuz Monument Caper
Brett Harrison
They tell a story, in some circles, about how in 1996, in Moscow, Russia, Rick Pirko and two others decorated a Russian space monument with a map of an obscure island, doing something for international relations, and, briefly, becoming space heroes.
This is that story.

The Beginning
I was from Australia; Rick was from the USA.  So, naturally, we first met in Russia.
Rick Pirko in the bus, touring Moscow. Author is at far left. (photo by Brett Harrison)

It was April, 1996, and we were attendees at the week-long FPSPACE96, the first international space symposium of its kind.  I met Rick through his long-time friend and for this trip, roommate, Rob Landis from NASA; the two of them pretty much traveled around as a pair.  While Rob was an open book, Rick took me a couple of days to get to know - his quiet, knowing manner juxtaposed with his mischievous sense of humour was an interesting mix.  The three of us swapped anecdotes, learnt a bit about each other, and I impressed them by showing them my two passports – one Australian, one British (this is important later in the story).
During the long bus rides to various places of interest, we would chat about all things space and non-space, swap jokes, and one day Rick and I played out some old Monty Python sketches.  We were both pretty word perfect, which amazed the Russians, (and possibly some of the Americans) who thought we were making it all up on the spot.  This quickly turned into a tradition of us loudly telling jokes in the back of the bus on every journey, long or short.  The Russian students would vie for seats in the back, and reserve places for us “entertainers”. 

Surveillance shot: the Soyuz-Apollo Monument in its original, unaltered state. (photo by Brett Harrison)
 The Monument & the Wager
On day two, the bus passed by the building that housed TsUP, the Russian “Central Control” for space missions, equivalent to Houston’s Mission Control.  With a shout, one of our party pointed out the imposing concrete and steel monument to the 1975 US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz joint space mission.  Joint space missions are the norm now, but in 1996, this had still been the only one of its kind.  Largely forgotten by Americans, it was still a big deal to the Russians, and it personified the sort of international space co-operation our group tried to promote. The monument was right outside TsUP, on its own traffic island.  The centrepiece was a large metal Earth, with various plate metal continents welded to it.  A proud native of Tasmania, I pointed out, in mock outrage, that my island state (about the same size as Indiana) had been again left off the map - an annoying occurrence in Australia, and a sensitive matter to many Tasmanians.  “I have a good mind”, I declared, “to climb up there and stick Tasmania on it!”
Now, I had been teasing ex-USAF straight arrow Rob quite a bit, and he saw an opportunity for some revenge:  “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you’ll do it!” he said, and without thinking, I said “Done!”

L to R: David Portree, Rick Pirko, Rob Landis, and Yuri (author's mascot) showing Rob some love. Rob is taking it all in good humor while Rick makes some typically dry comment. (photo by Brett Harrison)
The Plot
The next day I happened on Rob & Rick in the corridor of our accommodations.  “Y’know, Rob, I’ve been thinking about our mission regarding the monument....”
Rob was horrified.  “Mission?  I… I… thought you were joking! “
I pointed out (tongue hidden in my cheek) that Australians took wagers very seriously.  A bet with an Australian was a sacred thing.  And Australians, of course, were really all like Crocodile Dundee under the skin. You wouldn’t want to offend an Australian by going back on a bet!
Rick, to Rob’s dismay, could see where this was heading, and immediately jumped in to support me.  Rob didn’t want to be part of any scheme, but Rick pointed out that I had to go to actually do the deed; Rob had to go to make sure I didn’t cheat, and of course, Rick had to go, to be an impartial witness.  I walked away chuckling, Rob walked away looking worried, and Rick walked away smiling with a twinkle in his eye.
The next morning, on the way to breakfast, Rick intercepted us both in the corridor.  He’d obviously been outside.  “Well, I’ve just paced it out.  It’s about a 20 minute walk.  I think we can do it late Thursday night. And I’d better bring my camera – you know, for evidence.”   If I was surprised at Rick’s initiative and commitment, Rob was horrified, but by now he had accepted the mission as inevitable.

The Buildup
Thursday night was one reserved for the “foreign guests” – that is, us – to do presentations on aspects of their space work.  Rick did a memorable presentation on the astronomical knowledge of the Native Americans.  Rob was up next, with pictures from the Hubble Space telescope.  He seemed nervous (not helped by the fact that our Russian hosts had failed to provide the promised slide projector, and what he had was essentially a slideshow), and had removed his wallet & passport from his pockets & placed them on the table – right next to me.  As soon as Rob left to go to the front of the room, I picked up his passport, turned to Rick, and said “Gee, Rob has left his passport out.  I think I’d better take care of it for him.”  Rick cracked that slight grin of his, his eyes twinkled, and he said in his quiet drawl, “You dog.  You dirty dog.”
An air of apprehension hung over our usual post-meeting drinks in the tea-room that evening.  Rob was usually a non-drinker, but we managed to find a German beer he liked, and with our encouragement, he downed a couple for courage.  It seemed to help.  We left the tea-room, put on our outdoor clothing, and were heading for the main door, when Rob suddenly stopped and checked his pockets.  “My passport!  Geez, I don’t have my passport!  I can’t go out without it!  I must have left it in my room.”
He rushed off, while Rick and I followed, trying to keep straight faces.  Rick and I waited outside the room while Rob rushed in and all but tore it apart.  The noises from within – opening & closing of bags, clothes being tossed around, and papers being ruffled - became more and more frantic.  “Oh shit!  Oh shit!  Oh SHIT!”
You have to remember that this was Russia in 1996, less than 5 years after the fall of the USSR.  Officialdom could still be pretty strict about passports & papers.  Without his passport, Rob could be in trouble if stopped by the police.  He also couldn’t change money, check into a hotel, or leave the country.
He finally emerged, looking crestfallen.  “I’ve lost it! What am I going to do? “
I was momentarily stuck - I hadn’t thought ahead this far, but quick-thinking Rick came to the rescue.  “Maybe you could use Brett’s spare passport.” he suggested helpfully.  Rob was puzzled.  “I don’t think that would work!”
“Oh, I think it will,” I said, and handed him, folded closed, his own passport.  He looked at this obviously US passport uncomprehendingly, opened it up, and when he saw his own name & photo, went speechless for about 5 seconds as his jaw dropped. Then he spluttered and called me a couple of uncomplimentary names while Rick & I split our sides laughing.

Rick and Rob at the start of the mission, trying to blend in with the native Muscovites. (photo by Brett Harrison)
The Night Mission
That done, we launched into the night.  Only two other attendees knew of the plot; my partner, Sue, who was sworn to silence, and our friend David Portree, a science writer who offered to act as a distraction/decoy while we were gone. Since we three were well known “personalities” by now, our absence, the opinion went, would be soon noticed.
Rick’s reconnaissance was accurate.  Within 20 minutes we were there.  There was only one problem.  At 10PM, that traffic island in that quiet suburb was the centre of a hive of activity.  Cars everywhere!

We decided to hide in the bushes until the coast was clearer.  After a while, we realised that this itself might arouse suspicion if we were seen (Headline: “Foreign Spies/Peeping Toms Arrested in Space District”), so Rick, with his ever-present camera, pretended to take flash photos of us and the monument whenever a car or pedestrian approached.  We kept up this pretense for about 20 minutes.  At last the traffic died down to nothing.
Tasmania in hand, I ran to the monument, jumped, and… failed.  The concrete platform was too high up for me.  I could get a grip on the top edge, but I couldn’t haul myself up.  Rick quickly ran in to give me a leg-up.
"I'll be your booster stage", he said.  I pointed out that this would be an unusual rocket; I was much heavier than him. It was usually the other way round. He laughed: "Well, I'm more like a JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off) unit!"
Rick-assisted, I got on the platform, looked up, and realised that now I was underneath the globe & couldn’t actually see Australia.  Rob & Rick, hiding on the other side of the concrete block, were yelling “Hurry up!  Hurry up!”  in stressed whispers.  I reached up, and blindly slapped the adhesive-backed cardboard Tasmania I had made right onto the globe. But there was one last surprise.  Bonnnnnnnngggg!”  The giant metal sphere (reputedly an oxidizer tank from the failed Soviet N-1 moon rocket) rang like a great bell in the still night air! Horrified, we scampered away before we got arrested for violating a national monument, and ran back to the bushes.
The Result
From this safe vantage, we inspected our handiwork. I’d missed!  Unsighted, I had placed Tasmania directly beneath Western Australia – about 2000 miles off-target, and on entirely the wrong side of the continent.  I wanted to go back & fix it, but Rick & Rob were smarter than, and assured me it looked fine.   Time to escape.  Sneaking out from cover, we resumed our leisurely, nonchalant, completely non-suspicious walk back to the institute, glancing behind us every now and then, and speaking only in Russian so as to not arouse suspicion.  I don’t know how convincing we were.  Rob was fluent, I knew only a few phrases, but all Rick could manage was “Da, da” with a distinct Ohio twang.
Postcarte sent by a Russian friend over a year later. Note Tasmania still in entirely the wrong place
When we returned, we discovered 2 things: (1) there was a great room party going on, and (2) Sue had blabbed.  Everyone, especially the organisers, increasingly suspicious, wanted to know where “those three” were, and she had finally cracked.  While the conference organiser was horrified, the Russian students were impressed, so we sailed into the room party as heroes, and everyone drank toasts to our adventure and the furthering of international relations through a little cartographic correction.
The monument was still in its corrected state the next morning, and there was a raucous cheer in the bus as we passed.   Tasmania was there the next day, too.  And the next.  In fact, our friends in Moscow communicated to us later that it was there for months and months afterwards, tattered a bit by the weather, but lasting long enough to make it onto a postcard.  In fact, it was never really removed. It remained there until the monument was damaged by an automobile collision and taken away to be repaired (and, of course, this being Moscow in the 90’s, never seen again).

The Legacy 
The story of that adventure has been retold by me many times since (and then retold by others, I have now heard), and so I, and others who never met him, will always remember Rick fondly as a partner in that harmless crime.

author's Note: Rob Landis, BTW, our partner in crime, was the one who arranged for that asteroid to be named after Rick. See post elsewhere about it on this Great Big Space blog