Weightless Versailles: A History of American Space Diplomacy

Christina La Fleur
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Christina La Fleur

Researcher interested in political economy, public policy, international relations, and...pretty much everything in that ballpark.You can find more of my work at christinalafleur.wordpress.com.
Christina La Fleur
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Five space agencies built and operate the International Space Station.  President Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address gave NASA 10 years to “develop a permanently manned space station…[and] invite other countries [to] strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom…” with those who shared American goals.  In 1988, the United States signed Space Station agreements with Canada, Europe, and Japan.  Ten years later, the Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation was signed by representatives of 15 countries, now including Russia, which has been America’s most important partner in the project.

The space station is a uniquely grand example of space diplomacy, the forging of international bonds through peaceful space science.  American space diplomacy began simultaneously with its domestic space program.  The space station represents one of our most global efforts at statecraft with spacecraft, but it isn’t the first or last.  NASA in the World claims that NASA been part of more than 4,000 international space agreements over its history.  In space science, American efforts have been truly global.

The International Geophysical Year, “a multinational effort to study Earth on a comprehensive, coordinated basis,” began in July 1957.  In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into existence and wrote to Chairman Bulganin of the USSR to advocate for the “new idea” of “outer space [being] perpetually dedicated to peaceful purposes,” supported by “cooperative international procedures.” That year, the United States and Canada began satellite cooperation to improve communications and the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was established.

John Glenn’s successful Friendship 7 orbit represented not only new heights for the American program, but the conviction to maintain international friendliness and peace in space even amid a heating Cold War and galloping space race.  During the vessel’s 1962 world tour, people around the world come out to see a defunct metal pod, and showed how space programs really represented giant leaps for all of mankind.

During the year, both Soviet and American leadership declared that cooperation in space could be the path to mutual understanding and the solution to technical problems.  The Dryden-Blagonravov conversations lead to US-USSR cooperation on several space projects and demonstrated the role of academics in modern diplomacy.  Scientists across the world were using American designs to further their national space programs.  In the 60s, Frenchmen were in Maryland learning how to build their own satellite, leading to cooperation on experimental satellite Eole; American satellites were carrying Canadian equipment into space for radio communication projects; and in 1970 Japan launched a rocket program based on US technology.  The United Nations treaty on the exploration of outer space, legally declaring space open to all states, for the benefit of all people, was considered and signed in 1967.

By this point, space exploration had captured the hearts and minds of the American people.  As many as 600 million people watched the American moon landing.  The Guardians of the Galaxy first appeared in issue #18 of Marvel Super-Heroes, released January 1969.  Martin Caidin’s 1964 novel and the 1969 motion picture based on it, Marooned, depicts American astronauts in need of Soviet rescue in space.  In July 1975, elements of the fiction came true as the American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz craft docked together, resulting in the first American-Soviet space handshake and a ISS preview.

In the 1970s and 80s, the United States and the Soviet Union mapped the moon, discussed their missions, and tested their lunar samples.  This cooperation, including the momentous 1972 Moscow summit, culminated in the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The Soviet Union carried American and European experiment packages on its satellites and American flights brought up Canadian satellites. The Canadian Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, Canadarm, was designed and installed on American Space Shuttles to be used in more than 90 missions from 1981-2011.

In 1973, a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the European Space Agency, representing 10 countries, gave birth to the Spacelab program, a “versatile laboratory carried in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay for special research flights.” Between 1983 and 1998, 22 Spacelab missions were flown.

The Cospas-Sarsat program was the marriage of the Soviet and the American-Canadian projects, built on the foundation of American-Canadian communications and the American-French Argos cooperation. The 1988 international agreement opened the satellite distress system to rescue teams across the world, and today ties together a total of 43 participating countries and organizations on every continent.

In 1983, the American-British-Dutch Infrared Astronomical Satellite began a 10-month mission to observe the sky in infrared, leading to later American observatory projects.

17 countries, and 33 American states, have contributed to the Cassini mission to Saturn, completed on September 15th after nearly 20 years.  The three contributing space agencies, NASA, ESA, and the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, developed different parts of the project and continue to make their discoveries available to the public.

In 1984, President Reagan ordered the development of a space station, which grew into today’s impressive international project.  The President signed S.J.Res. 236 in October: “a joint resolution relating to cooperative East-West ventures in space as an alternative to a space arms race,” legalizing a bipartisan American preference for peaceful cooperation to war.  This preference later resulted in a 1987 agreement with the Soviet Union and cooperation on the American Magellan expedition to Venus.  The US also supported Russian efforts to study Halley’s comet during its 1986 orbit.  The fall of the Soviet Union ended efforts to work together on other planetary projects, but a 1992 agreement allowing the US to use the Russian space station Mir demonstrated those nations’ ongoing commitment to collaborative space science, especially manned space missions like the Space Station.

The Compton Gamma Ray observatory was launched in 1991, carrying advanced equipment “dedicated to observing the high-energy universe,” accessible to scientists around the world.  Four contributing institutions, including the German Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the Dutch Laboratory for Space Research, and the Space Science Department of ESA/ESTEC, hosted guest investigations and developed COMPETL, the observatory’s Imaging Compton Telescope.

Similarly, the Hubble Telescope was designed for international cooperative study.  With ESA contributions and their continuing operational support, the telescope as we know it today was launched in 1990.  Its archive contains more than 120 terabytes of data for which more than 11,000 scientific papers can thank their existence.  The universal accessibility of Hubble images, drawing together professional and amateur scientists of all ages from all over the world, does as much to help explain deep space as to demonstrate our global, borderless humanity, like Armstrong’s leap and the Apollo-Soyuz handshake did before them.  Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is another collaboration with ESA as well as the Canadian Space Agency.  Development began in 1996, construction started in 2004, and it is scheduled to launch in 2018 from French Guiana.

The 2000s and early 2010s were dominated by large, ongoing collaborative projects.  The end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 has left American astronauts dependent on Russian launches to reach space and condemned the Hubble Telescope with the end of maintenance flights. However, during its lifetime the program put 852 fliers from 16 countries into Earth’s orbit for a total of over 1,334 days, docked with Mir 9 times, and docked with ISS 37 times.

During this period, nations across the world collaborated, and agreed to continue collaborating, on peaceful space exploration. Agencies representing 21 countries attended NASA’s 2005 International Workshop on Exploratory Science.  The 2007 Global Exploration Strategy Framework outlined the long term exploratory goals and coordination strategy of 14 space agencies, from four of the six inhabited continents.  In November 2015, NASA’s Charles Bolden promised a manned mission to Mars by midcentury and the need for international cooperation to do it.  Space cooperation and diplomacy, he said, “go together like peanut butter and jelly.”

In 2018, the United States is due to host the 42nd bi-annual General Assembly of the International Council for Science’s Committee on Space Research, an organization founded on the commitment to promote international scientific space research.  The same year, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched, bringing the largest infrared observatory into space, available to scientists around the world.  Similarly, there has been some discussion of an American-Russian replacement for ISS, potentially open to broader global cooperation.

Over the decades, successive American administrations formed continuous international partnerships in space projects.  Space diplomacy strengthened ties with allies and kept dialogue open with enemies.  While attempts have been made, and will continue to be made, to militarize space, the fact remains that there are two truly international clubhouses for humans in our universe: Antarctica and space.  Perhaps while we can keep both inhospitable, we can have peace there.

For additional sources, reading material, and background, please see the full length post at https://christinalafleur.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/a-short-history-of-american-space-diplomacy/