For 50 years the folks who travel into space have cooperated above the borders that divide those on land. But as we find space not so empty will lines be drawn?
Astronaut Donald K. Slayton and cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov are seen together in the Soyuz Orbital Module during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. (Credit: NASA)
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When Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, was asked her most memorable impression of earth as she gazed down from orbit, she was emphatic: “There are no borders.”
Sharman explained that the view from space reveals where the land meets the sea, mountains and rivers. “What you don’t see are those silly little lines down political maps,” she said.
Sharman trained in the Soviet Union for her 1991 mission onboard the Soviet space station Mir. She was one of many western astronauts over the years who got to know Star City near Moscow.
Despite the space race between the superpowers, cooperation on human spaceflight missions between the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia, has been the norm for nearly 50 years.
It started in 1975 when Soviet and U.S. spacecraft docked in orbit for the first Apollo-Soyuz mission. The technically-challenging and politically-delicate operation was made possible by mutual respect between the cosmonauts and astronauts, as they shared expertise and mastered each other’s languages. Friendships bloomed.
Cooperating in the cosmos
Joint missions continued during the 30-year lifespan of the U.S. Space Shuttle which docked regularly with the Soviet space station Mir. The experience was instrumental in the creation of the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS was the first large-scale multinational space project. It was a joint endeavor between the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA in the United States, the European Space Agency and the Canadian and Japanese Space Agencies. Since 2000, astronauts and cosmonauts from 19 nations have lived and worked together on the orbiting outpost.
But how is cooperation in space possible when some nations involved are at odds back on earth?
There has been no shortage of political crises in the 50 years since joint space missions started. Has the Russian invasion of Ukraine made cooperation in space difficult?
After all, much of the weaponry used by the Ukrainian military is supplied by the United States and some of the nations that participate in the European Space Agency. And many of the cosmonauts and astronauts working together on the station are serving military personnel.
When politics interferes
Sergei Krikalev has a unique perspective. His first mission as a cosmonaut on the Soviet space station Mir became an endurance test as a result of the chaos which resulted from the Moscow coup in August 1991.
Launches were canceled and Krikalev’s mission was extended repeatedly to a record setting 436 days. That gave him plenty of time for contemplation.
Krikalev left earth as a citizen of the Soviet Union, a country that was dissolved while he was in orbit, and returned to an independent Russia.
In a blog post for NASA, Krikalev shared his perspective: “In space you have no borders…you start to feel a brotherhood,” he wrote. “We live on the same earth, bigger than the station but still a spacecraft that is flying through space.”
For nearly a decade after the end of the Space Shuttle programme, the United States was dependent on Russia to reach the ISS.
“There are no borders.”
— Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space.
Riding shotgun into space
U.S. astronauts trained in Russia and launched on the Soyuz craft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Roscosmos benefitted from the $4 billion dollars NASA paid to buy a total of 71 seats for astronauts.
Since 2020, the SpaceX Dragon, owned and operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation, has delivered astronauts to the ISS from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but some American astronauts continue to train in Russia for a ride on the Soyuz spacecraft.
It’s because of a barter agreement called ‘seat exchange’ — the same number of Russian cosmonauts train in the United States and launch on Dragon.
Krikalev, now Roscosmos’s director of human spaceflight, helped negotiate the seat exchange. He trained in the United States for two Space Shuttle missions. In an interview with NASA published in July 2022 he said that what keeps people apart on earth is artificial.
“What we do in space together is a good example of how people need to live on the ground,” he said.
Competition over space rocks and launch rights
Despite successful international partnerships on the ISS, competition in space is fierce. The success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 moon lander in August 2023 resulted in an outburst of national pride trumpeting the nation’s technical prowess achieved on a modest budget.
Only days earlier Russia’s Luna 25 mission malfunctioned and crashed as it prepared to land on the moon’s south pole.
As India joined the select club of nations — the Soviet Union, the United States and China — who have landed craft on the moon, the stakes are higher than ever.
Scientists believe lunar craters on the moon’s south pole contain water ice and the hydrogen and oxygen can be refined into high efficiency rocket fuel.
Launch costs from the moon are a fraction of those from the earth due to much lower gravity. Moon bases could create a ‘lunar economy’ that would make asteroid mining and Mars exploration financially viable.
Big money in moon landings
At the end of 2022, worldwide spending of government space programs reached a record $103 billion dollars. U.S. space spending was the largest at nearly $62 billion.
China’s space budget was just under $12 billion with Russia at $3.4 billion and India, known for their thrifty space programs, a mere $1.9 billion.
While the bulk of space budgets were for satellites enabling earth observation, communication, navigation and weather prediction, approximately a quarter of the spend was for human space flight and lunar exploration.
Expectations are high. India and Japan are planning a joint moon mission to the lunar south pole within three years. Meanwhile U.S. astronauts are training for a return to the moon in 2025 and to build a base.
Chinese astronauts also hope to land on the moon this decade and stake out their lunar base. Will the cooperation that has been key to humans living together in low earth orbit continue on the moon?
Can the obsession with borders that takes hold on earth be left behind?
Questions to consider:
- Do you think your view of life on earth would be change if you were able to look down on our planet from space?
- Are there lessons to be learned from international space projects?
- Do you think earthlings have a right to claim ownership of space or the celestial bodies in it?
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades.
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