Unclenching the Handshake in Space

Human exploration of outer space is currently being upended in a fashion unheard of during the last more than forty years. Russia’s declaration a few weeks ago that it will leave the International Space Station in 2025 and the successful launch of the core module of a new Chinese space station (Tianhe, Harmony of the Heavens) a week later are gauntlets thrown at the feet of NASA and the West. As space activities are a bellwether of international relations in general there is reason to worry what these developments mean in the long run and for peaceful relations on Earth. As if to underscore the putative challenge, China this week became the second nation to successfully land a rover on Mars. 

The close link between what happens in outer space and what happens on Earth is well documented. The iconic meeting of an Apollo and a Soyuz capsule 200 kilometers above Earth in 1975 allowed cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and astronaut Thomas Stafford to make the handshake that demonstrated in a most powerful way that terrestrial détente was a reality.

Ever since, human spaceflight has, with ups and downs, been a domain for cooperation between the US and Russia/the Soviet Union. It signalled that, although there was frequent tension on Earth, cooperation between the two was still possible in the right circumstances.

The pinnacle of cooperation in outer space has for more than 20 years been the International Space Station (ISS), which joins together not only the US and Russia, but also the European Space Agency with its 22 member states, Japan and Canada. The ISS is admittedly becoming long in the tooth and very expensive to operate, but has been kept alive not only because no replacement was forthcoming, but also because of its strong international symbolism.

The decision of Russia to abandon its part of the ISS in 2025 and its intention to build its own national space station are momentous news, demonstrating not only how strained relations between the US and Russia have become, but also the evergreen adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This is so, because China is waiting in the wings as an attractive partner for Russia.

The US and Russia are the traditional superpowers in outer space, of course, but have been joined by a China that has a wildly ambitious and highly successful space programme of it own. Thus China wants to put humans back on the Moon, allegedly in the first half of the 2030ies. 

The Chinese leadership clearly sees successful space exploration as important not only for its standing vis-á-vis the Chinese people, but for pressing its claims for a seat at the top table of the international system.

In pursuit of international recognition, for a long time China wanted to cooperate with the five partners of the ISS on space stations, only to have the door slammed in its face time after time, mainly by the US. In the end, China gave up on pursuing such cooperation. and hence China is now well on its way to create a space station of its own, and will likely succeed within the next couple years, and long before Russia. The launch of Tianhe provides China with the centrepiece around which its station will be built.

The plans of the West, promulgated by NASA, are to create a new space station orbiting not the Earth but the Moon. This station is an integral part of NASA’s project for reconquering the Moon. The highly tenuous schedule is for a launch of ‘Gateway’ in 2024. China is, as always, not part of the endeavour, and Russia declined last year.

All this sets the scene for a new space race! Russia and China are not natural friends but are forced into the arms of each other by the ‘my enemy’s enemy’ logic. Russia and China have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on a future lunar base, and given the recent Russian history of being unable to fund grand space ambitions it would hardly be surprising if also space stations would become part of the equation.

In other words, a tragedy is taking form. As a stripped-down illustration of how international relations work, human exploration of outer space shows that fronts are hardening even in an area that withstood the tragic shadow-boxing in Syria and the confrontations in Crimea and Ukraine. What outer space as a bellwether makes clear is that our world is fragmenting – differently than in the past that is true – yet perhaps as fundamentally as during the Cold War. Sadly, there is no assurance that the war will remain cold this time around. Hence, we must demand true statesmanship of our leaders. One first step in that direction would be for them to figure out a way to reintroduce broad-based cooperation in the exploration of outer space. That must include China! Going to the Moon again, and from there to Mars, should be humanity’s challenge, not that of competing states.

In September 1963, President Kennedy suggested in a remarkable and daring speech to the UN General Assembly that the race to the Moon be turned into a joint effort of humankind. Two months later he was killed and with him, so it seemed, his dream. Yet, Apollo and Soyuz and thereafter the ISS ultimately made Kennedy’s vision come true. It is in the strong interest of us all to make sure that this vision is kept alive even now so that hands can continue to be shaken in outer space!

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