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Opinion World

Flying Solo?: Balancing Nationalism with Collaboration in Space Diplomacy

When the Soviet Union launched the first successful satellite into orbit, it sparked the country’s fierce competition with the United States that became the Space Race. International competition stemmed from national security and foreign policy concerns, as it occurred during the Cold War, and the USSR was developing its space program as a military enterprise; the belief was that outer space provided crucial opportunities for military and diplomatic advantages. 

President Eisenhower sought to pursue space for peaceful uses, writing to Soviet leadership in 1957 and 1958 suggesting cooperation, but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev rejected this, certain that the USSR was much further ahead of the U.S. in terms of technological developments. The U.S. went ahead with NASA, which they decided to make a civilian enterprise, leaving military space efforts to other government organizations. Still, the exploration of space has always been intertwined with international affairs and often used as a diplomatic tool. Indeed, even now, U.S. scientists are prohibited by U.S. law from cooperating and collaborating with Chinese scientists to prevent espionage and intellectual property theft. Despite opposition from a majority of the scientific community because of the way the ban limits crucial collaboration in research and discussion, Congress believes it is a necessary national security measure.

Despite international disputes and fierce competition between the U.S. and Russia, there has also been considerable international cooperation in the realm of space travel and exploration. Though it’s often not discussed, this cooperation indicated a decrease in tensions between the two powers, and held great scientific importance as well. After the success of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the U.S. and the Soviet Union worked together on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, in which an American ship docked with a Soviet ship after developing compatible rendezvous and docking systems; NASA says these systems are still in use today. Additionally, by the late 1970s, the two countries were working together to conduct biomedical and life sciences research; the Soviet Cosmos 936 mission and 1129 mission carried a number of U.S. experiments and medical devices. On the Cosmos 936 mission, these experiments—along with ones from France and various Soviet-bloc countries—studied the impact of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. However, these efforts were fraught with political complications. The U.S. Congress was concerned that the Soviets had acquired valuable U.S. knowledge and technology during the Apollo-Soyuz project. As a result, President Jimmy Carter ended discussions regarding further cooperation, and any hope for significant future cooperation was subsequently quashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. 

However, all of this came after the U.S. victory in the Space Race as the first country to land people on the Moon. At the time, some were disappointed that this feat had not been harnessed to bring the world closer together. For example, New York Times editorialist Harry Schwartz lamented that Apollo 11 “would be worth many times the billions of dollars being spent on it if the effort served to bring the nations of the world together, to ease the tensions and dangers that now grip so much of the earth and its people.” Schwartz continued, “One may speculate about the useful impact that would have been registered if Apollo 11 had carried an American, a Russian and a Chinese rather than three Americans.” Other critics urged more cooperation between the USSR and the US specifically, hoping that it would lessen tensions between the two nations. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising that the US did not want to share the stage. The Soviet Union had taken a strongly nationalist position on their space program, and the U.S. wasn’t going to concede and offer the Soviet Union a spot on the lunar lander. To be the first to land on the Moon was to win the Space Race, and it was a demonstration of the U.S. scientific and technological superiority—allowing other countries’ astronauts to partake would diminish the international prestige gained by the mission. 

Yet, since 1998, the International Space Station has told the story of a much more collaborative space community; indeed, NASA calls the ISS “one of the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted” in any field. It is also the largest space station ever, and continues to be assembled in orbit. The principal space agencies are those of the United States, Russia, The European Union, Japan, and Canada, and the ISS has welcomed astronauts from 18 different countries so far. This unprecedented collaboration led to the design, development, and assembly of the space station, and continues with each new mission. Each crew is traditionally composed of astronauts from various countries, all working together to service the station and conduct a variety of scientific experiments using the ISS National Lab. The low-Earth orbit, microgravity environment on the ISS is incredibly unique and provides many advantages for a wide variety of research and development areas. One initiative was the protein crystal growth (PCG) experiments that began in 2013; in this specific environment, proteins can be grown as crystals with nearly perfect three-dimensional structures, which uniquely aids in the development of new, potentially life-saving drugs. 

International cooperation provides a number of benefits for the participating nations. For example, sharing technology and knowledge reduces costs and allows for scientific collaboration. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, collaboration is a powerful diplomatic tool: it can serve as leverage and can increase the influence that participating countries have on one another because of the interdependency it creates, leading countries to support the diplomatic and geopolitical aims of their partners back on Earth. Part of the decision to include Russia in the International Space Station partnership was based on the desire to strengthen the U.S.-Russia relationship and prevent Russian rocket scientists from dispersing to assist U.S. adversaries. Collaboration also builds trust and creates channels of communication that enable future cooperation on other matters. Additionally, partnerships with other countries provide political sustainability and programmatic stability, even throughout changing administrations. For instance, domestic political leaders are less likely to cut funding for or withdraw from agreements with international signatories; this is in direct contrast with contracts that are solely domestic, due to the associated costs to international capital and respect. 

Nevertheless, even with this flagship of cooperation, the motives of the United States—and other countries—remain self-serving. NASA policy reads, “Each cooperative activity will demonstrate a specific benefit to NASA and the United States. Such benefit may be in the form of data, services, or contribution to flight mission or operational infrastructure systems, or it may directly support broader U.S. policy or interests.” The idea that cooperation is driven by political interests and objectives has been echoed throughout the history of space cooperation, and recently by Scott Pace—the Executive Secretary of the National Space Council—who said, “international space cooperation is not an end in itself, but a means of advancing national interests.” 

Today, NASA holds hundreds of agreements with other countries regarding a variety of issues related to outer space. While collaboration may be self-serving, that does not undermine the importance of such agreements and the scientific advancements that come out of them. For example, NASA holds Project-Specific Agreements with France’s space agency, the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), and the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) for participation and collaboration by different scientists on NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS). The EOS is a group of satellites made for long-term observation of Earth’s land surface, biosphere, solid surface and interior, atmosphere, and oceans; working with other space agencies allows NASA to draw on expertise from multiple countries and more effectively service these satellites. Indeed, collaboration like this will become more and more crucial as the world looks to solve issues like space debris and address the climate crisis. 

The debate over international cooperation in human spaceflight will return to the forefront as the U.S. and other organizations—national space agencies and private corporations alike—set their sights on Mars. The world is still gripped by tensions and dangers that threaten our survival, concerns that require large-scale international cooperation. Despite what the scientific community and other onlookers may want, there is huge diplomatic capital and prestige to be gained from being the first country to put humans on Mars, such that political factors would probably limit cooperation for the first crewed Mars mission. Because the weight attributed to this achievement decreases so much after the first country realizes its goal, it is possible that the U.S. and other major space powers would consider combining crews for following missions. However, the chance for dramatic collaboration in the beginning is also low because of the potential for countries like Russia to take advantage of shared technologies.

Especially in the past months, we’ve seen how much NASA and the U.S. government value their own space capabilities and independence, particularly as indicators of technological prowess, rejecting assistance from Russia’s space agency in the process. NASA worked to contract with American aerospace company SpaceX, instead of buying seats with the Russians to get astronauts to the ISS. These values have been echoed by legislators in relation to Mars missions, too; in a statement about the NASA Authorization Act of 2020, Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairwoman Kendra Horn (D-OK) said, “Americans should be the first to set foot on the red planet.” While political landscapes have certainly changed since the 1969 Moon landing, space exploration is no less entrenched in international diplomacy and the desire of the U.S. to emerge victorious from every challenge remains strong. As such, any U.S. missions to Mars will almost certainly carry only American astronauts.