Ad Astra Diplomacy

Showy and expensive, space exploration is a fine tool for fostering international cooperation

2 min read

Photo of a rocket as it moves slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China’s Hainan Province.
Photo: Sun Hao/Xinhua/Redux

Photo of a rocket as it moves slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China\u2019s Hainan Province.A Long March 5 rocket is moved slowly toward the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in China’s Hainan Province.Photo: Sun Hao/Xinhua/Redux

In the 2015 science fiction blockbuster The Martian, the United States makes a rushed effort to send life-sustaining provisions to its marooned astronaut on the Red Planet. Alas, the attempt fails when NASA’s resupply rocket explodes shortly after liftoff. But officials with China’s national space program save the day when they offer the services of a previously secret Chinese rocket that is capable of ferrying the needed materials.

The Martian movie and the book on which it is based have been hailed for their many realistic technical details. One that got glossed over in the movie, though, was a U.S. law that prevents NASA from engaging in any form of bilateral cooperation with China without prior congressional approval. And if Congress of 2035 remains anything like the present-day Congress, the notion that it could quickly pass a measure reversing that ban, even to save poor starving Mark Watney, strains credulity.

Maybe we ought to start preparing for such eventualities right now. After all, China is growing increasingly active and capable in space exploration, as will be evident to you after you read about its upcoming plans to investigate our celestial neighbor in “China Promises the Moon,” in this issue.

Later this year, China will likely try to make the first-ever touchdown on the lunar far side, which will require putting a satellite in orbit about the moon to relay signals to and from the lander. And soon afterward, China plans to retrieve lunar samples and return them to Earth, a feat that hasn’t been carried out for more than 40 years (the last to do it was the former Soviet Union, by the way).

Sure, such missions involve technology that could be used for military purposes. And China and the United States, being geopolitical rivals, are understandably sensitive about that. But there’s still plenty of room for cooperation in space without the threat of damaging either country’s security. The United States could contribute scientific instruments to Chinese-led missions, for example, as some other countries have done. Or China could do the same for U.S.-led missions. Or the two nations could simply coordinate the efforts they each have planned to explore the moon during the 2020s and come to some agreement over how the scientific data that is collected would be shared. Over time, such forms of cooperation could help to bind the two countries’ technical and scientific establishments in ways that would tend to make conflict less likely.

So let’s look for opportunities to allow scientists and engineers from the two nations to mix, just as was done when the United States and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads. It’s either that or more ping-pong. And exploring space together seems a lot more interesting.

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