Tensions in US and Russian relations over the Ukraine and Syria have led to questions about continued cooperation in space, especially over the International Space Station. After the US put Russia’s deputy prime minister for space and defense on a sanctions list earlier this year, the Russians suspended sales of their RD-180 engine, which is used to power the US’s Atlas V rocket, the workhorse of both NASA and the US Department of Defense. What the future holds is unknown, but a glance into the past may be instructive.
Bradley Shreve’s “The US, The USSR, and Space Exploration, 1957-1963” offers precedents for hope in continuing cooperation away from the competitive political atmosphere of the Earth. The years he discusses, after all, were the hot years of the Cold War, with the Bay of Pigs invasion and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis bringing the world near war.
Even so, both US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev consistently exchanged congratulatory messages after successful satellite, and then manned, space launches, through the thick and thin of crises, often on the heels of blistering words about earth-bound affairs.
“Exploration of space countered the hostilities on earth,” argues Shreve, “at times serving as a safety net or pressure valve when heightened tensions were leading the superpowers precariously close to destruction.”
Shreve traces such goodwill efforts to 1957’s International Geophysical Year, in which 66 countries took part, including both the US and USSR, in studies of the Earth and its place in the solar system. The situation was not necessarily peachy in space, since rockets and satellites had obvious military uses, but the parties made serious efforts to “prevent the spread of the arms race to outer space,” in the words of UN General Assembly Resolution 1884, and to cooperate on such relatively neutral areas as meteorology and communications. Eventually, such efforts culminated in the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1974, when the two “enemy” spacecraft successfully docked and their crews worked together on joint experiments.
Shreve ends with a timeline of the birth of the Space Age, beginning with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. The two squabbling parents could sometimes be extremely bitter, but they thankfully never went as far as a nuclear divorce. Space sometimes has a way of being above it all.