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James Van Laak served as the Deputy Program Manager for NASA's Phase 1 Shuttle-Mir Program. He also was a member of the Management Working Group, where he helped to provide technical coordination of RSA and NASA Phase 1 activities.
Prior to his NASA career, Van Laak spent ten years in the Air Force as a pilot. In his Oral History, Van Laak said:
"On one occasion I was in Star City, which is where they train the cosmonauts, and I heard an airplane take off. It is a military base, basically. I looked out the window and a MiG-23 was taking off, which is an older Russian airplane, but it's one that was front line when I was in the Air Force, and one that I trained to fight against.
At that time it was clear that there was a real military element to this, that this was still the former Soviet Union, and that these people we were meeting with were twice and thrice heroes of the Soviet Union and so on, and yet they were flesh and blood people with their own concerns and their own families.
"One doesn't have to look very far in Russia - in fact, you can't escape the fact that their economic strength, the individuals, their economic well being is much less than ours, their standard of living and so on.
"So I think that insofar as the relations between the countries is built in large part on the feelings of the individual citizens of both countries, I think this [Phase 1] has been a watershed event. I know that many Russians were suspicious of us, probably jealous of us for our material wealth and those sorts of things. "I feel confident that a great many of them have come to understand that we just live in a different culture. We're still good people with sound moral values and so on, and that they can come to trust us as we have learned to trust them. So in the aggregate, I think it's been a wonderful thing."
James Van Laak Oral History (PDF)
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