The national space programs of the worlds have long been dominated by national concerns over international affairs. This is most assuredly the case with the United States. Manifested in the context of both competition and cooperation, international concerns have been a powerful shaper of the U.S. civil space program since its beginning.
This was present from the outset, when the U.S. decided to orbit its first satellite as a result of decisions made in the International Council of Scientific Unions to sponsor investigations about the Earth as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), held between July 1, 1957, and December 31, 1958. This international scientific organization asked the United States and other nations to develop Earth-observing scientific satellites whose data would be made available to all Union members on an equitable basis, and on July 29, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the U.S.’s intention of beginning the Vanguard project as an international scientific endeavor.
The Apollo program, so properly viewed as an outgrowth of international competition between the U.S. and the USSR, came close in 1962 and 1963 to becoming a truly international effort. In the fall of 1961 President John F. Kennedy explored the possibility of reshaping the program from one of competition into one that fostered international cooperation by bringing the Soviet Union, then the only other spacefaring nation, into it as a full partner. The President’s vision sought to remake Apollo into a program that instead of heightening Cold War rivalries with the Soviet Union would lessen them and build bridges between two great nations. His concerns prompted NASA and State Department officials to open negotiations with Soviet leaders, but the timing was inappropriate for cooperative ventures. However, a series of early crises–Berlin, Cuban missile, etc.–mitigated efforts at genuine cooperation.
As late as September 1963 President John F. Kennedy before the United Nations suggested the possibility of a U.S./USSR “joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; . . . why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? 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 some day in this decade to the moon not representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.” He closed by urging, “Let us do the big things together.” His cooperative vision, unfortunately, elicited no response from the other side, save dismissals by a few Soviet editors who pronounced it “premature.”
During the years of the Space Shuttle’s development, from the 1970s into the mid 1980s, the competition lessened, for after the Americans bested their Soviet competitors in the Moon race the Soviet Union appears not to have participated in any serious race for a shuttle, preferring expendable rocket boosters for space tasks. Nonetheless, international considerations did not lessen. In 1970 Richard Nixon asked NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine to make the shuttle an international program, and by 1972 he had negotiated a series of agreements with European nations that would have provided for true cooperation. A coalition of groups, however, were concerned about the problems of program management in an international context and with emerging European interests in science and technology and consolidation of the continental economy. The result was that the cooperative thrust became less compelling over time and only the Canada arm and Spacelab on the Shuttle were international in scope.
When it came to constructing and supplying a space station, the principal destination for the American shuttle, the U.S. chose to emphasize cooperation with its allies the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan in building a permanently occupied and large space station Freedom. By the middle part of the 1980s, however, competition had dropped to a low ebb, and ceased altogether with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1989.
But international competition and cooperation has not been the sole driving force in the U.S. space effort, and presidential leadership of it. Sometimes the successes of a program turn out to be more than the founders envisioned, and such is the case with NASA. In the passage of years into the twenty first century the international use of satellites for telephones and for television and for guidance of ships at sea and for weather observation and for managing the earth’s natural resources has made a large difference in the shape of world affairs, in bringing nations together.
Perhaps the most important change in spaceflight has been a steady movement from U.S./U.S.S.R. competition to widespread international cooperation in civil space activities. To be sure, in NASA’s statutory statement of 1958 a mandate appeared for international cooperation: “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” President Kennedy asked the nations to “do the big things together.”
The vision of a slain President fifty years ago, true international cooperation has been realized with the efforts of the International Space Station. There is some discussion of the possibility if abandoning this space station in 2020 or 2024, only a few years after its completion. This could be a travesty. Having spent more than a decade building it, we must utilize it for scientific research for at least that same amount of time after its completion.