“All these worlds are yours…
Use them together, use them in peace”
— “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984)
In the fictional universe of “2010,” a Jupiter-bound joint U.S.-Soviet crew finds itself trapped in a gridlock, as a result of the escalating geopolitical tensions back on Earth between the two superpowers. In the real world, amidst all the tensions and the deterioration of relationships between U.S. and Russia over the recent events in Crimea, many within the space community have expressed fear that a similar scenario could be played out in the International Space Station orbiting 420 km above our planet, with U.S. astronauts being denied access to the orbiting laboratory by their Russian partners. Yet, as in the movie, space exploration has the potential to be the catalyst for peace between nations, as no other human endeavor can.
In the absence of a wider, long-term goal and rationale, human spaceflight has been historically criticized both within and outside of the space community as a wasteful expenditure and as a solely Cold War exercise between rivaling nations. Although this criticism is widely unjust, it is true that human spaceflight has always served as a tool for the boasting of nationalistic supremacy within the geopolitical arena. Yet, at the same time, it has always been one of the most multi-dimensional human endeavors, having a transformational effect on many different aspects of society, culture, and the human psyche. Yuri Gagarin, the first Son of Earth who would gaze at the Home Planet from above, would remark on this transcendental nature of spaceflight on various occasions: “What beauty! I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear Earth … The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots … When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the Earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the Earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquoise, dark blue, violet, and finally coal-black … Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is … People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” It is no exaggeration to state that the value of human spaceflight and its effects on the human species have by far overshadowed the shallow rationales for which the whole endeavor was initially pursued by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the first place.
One of the many dimensions that human spaceflight has had a lasting impact on is the peaceful cooperation between nations. The reason for this may be because, with the advent of spaceflight, a realisation arose inside of man on a deeper, subconscious level, which acknowledged the Earth as a single planet floating in an immense and vast Universe, and the human species as being one race occupying only a part of this planet, rendering all nationalistic rivalries irrelevant. It is no coincidence, then, that even at the height of the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the 1960s and ’70s, the two nations would pursue more productive and collaborative efforts in space than they would on Earth. Today, international cooperation in space seems like a de facto, but 50 years ago it almost seemed unthinkable. Space exploration would prove to be the biggest peaceful collaborative effort among nations, outside of the arena of war, bringing people from many different countries closer together.
The culmination of this collaborating spirit is exemplified in the successful construction and continued operation of the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit. Fusing together previous separately drawn space station plans, the ISS has proved to be a stellar example of different countries peacefully working together toward a common goal, allowing for the completion of one of the greatest engineering projects of our times and the biggest one in the history of astronautics.
Video Credit: NASA
Reflecting changing contemporary attitudes toward a more global civilisation, perhaps the most visible benefit of the ISS program to date has been its role as a model for the way that more harmonious relationships between nations could be achieved on Earth. Yet recent events have cast a shadow toward that prospect, as evidenced by the ongoing geopolitical crisis between Ukraine and Russia unfolding last month and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine by Russia. This resulted in a widespread international condemnation, with many countries imposing a series of sanctions against Russia, many of which, like the U.S., Japan, Canada, and the countries of the European Union, are its partners on the ISS program. And, with the U.S.-Russian relations reaching an all-time low not seen since the days of the Cold War, many have expressed their fear that the ISS program could be similarly affected. Since the only way for U.S. astronauts to travel to and from the ISS is currently onboard Russian Soyuz spaceships, Russia could potentially deny their access to the orbiting laboratory in the future, as an answer to the U.S.-imposed sanctions.
Although the events surrounding the Crimean crisis underscore the need for the U.S. to accelerate NASA’s Commercial Crew program for the development of domestic human transportation services to the ISS, these fears may be largely unjustified. “It is always in Russia’s capability to cut off their service,” said John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus at the Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., during an interview for the AFP. “But it would be a catastrophe. There is mutual dependence and that provides a good motivation to isolate this from the broader issues.” Indeed, the way that the International Space Station is constructed means that its partners are absolutely dependent on each other for the continuing operation of the orbiting complex, even if reluctantly, as noted by James Oberg, a space analyst for NBC News. “It’s cold comfort that the Russians rely on NASA almost as much as NASA relies on the Russians,” says Oberg. “If Russia monopolizes up-down transport, the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia’s orbital hardware couldn’t function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.”
The enduring relationship between the ISS partners in the face of geopolitical tensions was also underscored by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a news conference earlier this month: “I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises. I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we’re starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s not trivial. It has continued to exist and continued to function with people from a variety of cultures and beliefs, but we all are focused on the mission of the International Space Station.”
Bolden’s comments concerning a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the ISS weren’t just rhetorical, but they touched upon just such an initiative started in late 2013. The initiative was organised by the Space Safety Magazine, with the goal of promoting the recognition of the ISS as a symbol and catalyst for peace and progress for the mutual benefit of all. As stated by the Nobel Foundation, the Peace Prize is awarded to those individuals or organisations that have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” With all the participating nations on the ISS working together in a peaceful collaboration for the advancement of space exploration and the betterment of life on Earth, often by overcoming difficult political, economic, and cultural barriers, the ISS program is indeed best suited for the award. “Our mission is to secure global recognition of the political achievement that has enabled the creation, growth, and maintenance of the International Space Station,” write the editors of the Space Safety Magazine. “The international partnership that underlies this technological feat has persevered through changes of government, economic crises, political disagreements, technological challenges, budgetary constraints, and the end of the Shuttle program. It has brought scientific and economic benefits to all partners, and inspired people all over the world. Now it is our turn to recognize their work on the global stage.”
Their efforts have been successful so far in securing a 2014 nomination for the ISS program. Although the Nobel Prizes are best known to be awarded to individuals, the Peace Prize in particular has been given multiple times in the past to institutions and organisations whose work and overall function have fitted the award criteria. Notable names that have received the prestigious award include the European Union, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.
The Peace Prizes are awarded every year by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10. Even if the ISS program doesn’t turn out to be the winner, the Space Safety Magazine plans to continue trying until the program earns this well-deserved recognition. “Advocating for an ISS Partnership Nobel Peace Prize is one way to demonstrate this organization’s just deserts, and we will continue to pursue nominations for 2015 and beyond if necessary,” writes managing editor Merryl Azriel. “But our truest target is those members of governments and the general public around the world who ask ‘is ISS really worth funding?’ or ‘what do we get out of ISS?’ or, worst of all, ‘International Space Station – what’s that?’”
The ISS continues to point toward the future, with its role having an enhanced meaning in light of recent geopolitical events on Earth by showcasing that productive and peaceful cooperation between different countries is not an unattainable, utopian vision, but something that is already happening. “We’re in this together up there, and for each other we are the last people on Earth,” said Chris Hadfield during a recent interview for CBC News. Now a retired Canadian astronaut, Hadfield served as a commander of Expedition 35 aboard the ISS in 2013. “We’re working hard up there, to try to actually provide an example for the rest of the world.”
Ultimately, and putting any possible scientific breakthroughs aside, this might turn out to be one of the greatest benefits and lasting legacies of the International Space Station. Nobel Peace Prize-worthy material indeed.
Video Credit: Giacomo Sardelli/NASA
The opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of AmericaSpace.