"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
–President John F. Kennedy, speaking before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961
By Frank White
When most of us recall the Apollo lunar landing program, we think of a “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union—a contest that America “won” when Apollo 11 touched down in 1969.
Historians are now bringing to light a new understanding of that event. While President Kennedy was convinced that the U.S. had to win any competition with the Soviets in space, he preferred a cooperative, international approach to the “high frontier.” He reached out to his adversaries frequently to determine if they would be willing to work on a joint moon mission. Initially, he was rebuffed, but just before his assassination, the Soviet position appeared to be softening.
Only a few weeks before his death, President Kennedy spoke at the United Nations and called for a lunar landing that would include other countries in addition to the U.S. and USSR:
Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.
The president’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, placed less emphasis on cooperation in space, and President Kennedy’s dream faded into the background.
Over the past half-century, we have seen a number of countries pursuing their ambitions of space development. Most recently, China has been flexing its national muscles with a robust space program.
The very nature of space exploration suggests that cooperation ought to trump competition, however. While we create borders and boundaries to separate ourselves on Earth, the astronauts, humanity’s representatives “out there,” have had difficulty seeing these divisions. Instead, they have perceived a beautiful whole, a “spaceship Earth” moving through the universe at a high rate of speed, carrying its crew on a great adventure. I have called this experience “the Overview Effect.”
The message of the Overview Effect is clear: “we are all in it together,” as many astronauts returning from orbit have said. For this reason, we desperately need to apply “overview thinking” to life on Earth. This does not mean that we should abolish all nation-states, but we do need a unifying principle, a way to organize all the diversity on the planet into a whole systems approach to “planetary management.”
What, then, does overview thinking tell us about exploring outer space?
First, it does not tell us to abolish national space programs, any more than it tells us to abolish nations. In fact, we may see a higher level of innovation if we have 50-100 separate space exploration efforts reflecting the diverse cultures that have arisen on Earth.
However, just as we need to better organize our cooperative life on Earth, we would benefit from having an overarching structure for exploring the cosmos. In short, we need a Human Space Program, a “central project” that would engage all of us in the great adventure of exploring the universe.
While it is difficult to obtain an accurate count of the total number of countries with civilian space agencies, Space News reported in 2009 that 55 nations could boast a government space program of some kind, ranging from rudimentary capabilities to robust infrastructures.
Just as nation-states can be a positive force if they are acting within a context of global unity, national space programs will be stronger within a cooperative framework. The good news is that while there is much yet to be done, that balance is being created and is moving in the right direction.
For example, the International Space Station (ISS) is a model of international cooperation only 230 miles from the surface of the Earth. Introduced during the Reagan administration at the height of the Cold War, the ISS has been funded by five presidents and a series of American congresses, as well as leaders of 14 other nations. The station has been continuously occupied by human beings for more than a decade, and serves as an inspiration for future joint efforts in outer space.
NASA astronaut Ron Garan, a veteran of a 6-month stay on the ISS, said of his experience during a “spacewalk”:
As I was above the space station and looking down at it and the Earth, and seeing this amazing accomplishment, I was thinking, ‘Wow, there were 15 nations that worked together to build this amazing orbital complex…and if we can [do this], imagine what we can do by working together and putting aside some of our differences for a common goal, to overcome some of the challenges facing our planet.’
Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a correlation between the amount of cooperation among nations in the space environment, and the common ground achieved on Earth? That would mean that “space policy” could not be considered something separate and apart from “Earth policies,” and would put an entirely different spin on how we judge both public and private investment in activities on the “high frontier.”
As a hint of things to come, another group of countries is now forging a global space program that would go beyond what each country can accomplish on its own.
In 2006, 14 space agencies began a series of discussions on global interests in space exploration. Together, they have developed a roadmap for peaceful robotic and human exploration, focusing on destinations within the solar system where humans might be expected to live, work, and do everything they now do on Earth.
This group has built a voluntary international coordination mechanism, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), which allows individual agencies to exchange information regarding their interests, objectives, and plans in space exploration.
There are many other examples of cooperation among nation-states, including the European Space Agency (ESA), which includes a total of 20 members working together on a wide range of projects. In fact, there is so much going on that the Aerospace Technology Working Group (ATWG) recently published a 400-plus-page book on the topic, International Cooperation for the Development of Space.
We do not yet have a “Human Space Program,” but we are moving in the right direction. Wouldn’t it be a great milestone if we moved much closer to such an enterprise in 2013? Fifty years after his prescient UN speech, President Kennedy would, I think, be pleased.
Frank White is the author or co-author of nine books on space exploration, including The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. He is also the co-founder of the Overview Institute.
Overview, a new film based on White's work with the Overview Effect, can be viewed online here.
Photo courtesy of NASA.