In order for humankind to explore other planets, we must come together on this planet first.
Our first steps beyond this planet have followed two very different tracks. The first, and by far most prominent, have been the various “space races” between the Soviet Union and the United States, and later between China, India, Iran, Russia, the U.S., and other aspirants. The second are joint efforts such as the International Space Station, the European Space Agency, and post-Cold War Russian-U.S. cooperation.
The space races have represented both the best and the worst of human endeavor. In getting the first people to the Earth’s Moon and safely home again, thousands of scientists, engineers, and workers at all levels came together to create technology written off as fantasy just decades before. But as Carl Sagan said, it would be a mistake to think the Apollo program and its Soviet counterpart were about science. It was just about seeing who could get there first. Once that was done, nothing followed — no Moon base, no colony, no steps further into the Solar System. Humankind abandoned the Moon less than four years after first setting foot on it.
Since the end of the Cold War, ambitions in space have been reassigned politically from soft power to diplomacy. International cooperation in space led to the first real science being done beyond Earth’s confines through research at the ISS. Public-private partnerships have advanced human activity in space in ways that are both scientifically and commercially beneficial.
The signing of the Artemis Accords by Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. this month is a positive advancement of international space cooperation. The Accords establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among nations participating in lunar exploration.
Jim Bridenstine, Administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said, “Artemis will be the broadest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history, and the Artemis Accords are the vehicle that will establish this singular global coalition. With today’s signing, we are uniting with our partners to explore the Moon and are establishing vital principles that will create a safe, peaceful, and prosperous future in space for all of humanity to enjoy.”
The Accords reinforce and implement the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, otherwise known as the Outer Space Treaty. The Accords commit signatories to peaceful exploration in space.
Unfortunately, neither China nor Russia have signed on, nor have other aspirants in the second-wave space race like India and Iran. And though the U.S. claims peaceful motives in its commitment to return to the Moon after a half-century absence, the real incentive is once again political, as China eyes its own lunar landing by 2025.
Zhao Tong of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy told the South China Morning Post, “China traditionally believes that space exploration or Moon missions are done by state actors. From a nation’s point of view, there will always be concerns over questions of sovereignty and security.”
Cooperation in space is more than just a matter of nicety between nations. The twin crises of climate change and overpopulation — both of which mean resource depletion and decreased terrestrial livability — mean that humankind must seriously explore off-world habitation. We cannot go to the Moon and turn around again, or compete to see who can plant a flag on Mars first. We must come together to introduce an era of peace and progress in space as a United Earth.