The real lessons of international cooperation in space
by James Oberg
|Just as it can be frustrating and misleading to try to reconstruct World War 2 history from stories told at an American Legion picnic, so too should caution be exercised in giving much credence to celebratory boasts and grand advisories that have been coming out of the current celebrations.|
“It was the very heights of the Cold War,” Stafford recalled, “with thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each country.” Then from outer space a streak of sanity appeared: “Yet both superpowers had great accomplishments in space, so we decided to work together.” On the dais, his opposite number on the Soviet side, Leonov, nodded amiably.
However, history paints a far different picture, and Leonov, especially, knew it. The Soviet space program was in shambles, its drive to land men on the Moon literally in ruins and rubble (Leonov was to have been the commander of that mission). Its backup plan to regain the lead in the “Space Race” was to build a small orbiting space station, but linkups failed and one space crew died (Leonov was supposed to have gone on that flight but a medical problem led to the dispatch of his backup crew). Two subsequent space stations were launched but crashed to Earth, and Leonov had trained to command them both. His subsequent assignment to the space linkup was a consolation prize.
Only with the Soviet program at a standstill did Moscow agree to fly a joint orbital mission. Its fallback position was that if it couldn’t be Number One in space, it could at least pose as the equal partner of the new Number One, the United States. It was better than letting on how far behind its space program had fallen.
Some of the revisionist history touted at these celebrations wasn’t nearly as benign. At the NASM, Vance Brand delicately described the cautious first meetings when “we’d all heard a lot of bad things about the other country”. Brand wasn’t so rude as to elaborate that the “bad things” Americans had heard about the USSR were mostly true and the “bad things” the Soviet public had been fed about the West were mostly propagandistic lies. But, Brand continued, since the cosmonauts were easy to get along with, “any concerns went away.” As pilots they were able to ignore politics, they all agreed.
This “political neutrality” was made easier, sadly, by the space pilots deciding to simply see the Cold War as a turf battle between competing but ultimately indistinguishable clans. For example, Stafford recently reduced the conflict between the free nations of the West and the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet bloc as “two superpowers with a somewhat adversarial relationship.”
This echoed a passage in a recently-published official NASA history of the 1995–1997 Shuttle-Mir program (written by an astronaut’s spouse, not a real historian) which explained the Cold War began with the US and the USSR becoming “competitors in many areas”. It then developed into “a situation similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its ‘two households, both alike in dignity’ yet sharing an ‘ancient grudge’…” There weren’t any “good guys” or “bad guys” in this unearthly view of earth history.
This may be the way it looks from outer space, and may be the way it has to be seen for the sake of US-Russian space partnerships, but it’s not a reality-based conclusion. If Earthside history teaches anything, it is that Moscow was indeed the capital of an “evil empire” and the world is far better off that the Soviet regime wound up on the “ash heap of history”, in the then-controversial words of President Reagan. The American astronauts probably knew it, but they also—probably rightly—knew they couldn’t speak the truth then, or now, for the sake of the mission. That was except for one loose-tongued backup cosmonaut who expressed his unconventional opinions a little too freely, and wound up bounced from the cosmonaut program.
If the Cold War was no more than a global gang war by two morally equivalent forces, then from the point of view of the Apollo-Soyuz team the solution to the conflict can be equally fantastical: teach the rest of the world by their example how they can all “just get along” as well as the spacemen did.
That’s the way the NASM’s press release portrayed it: “Thirty years ago in July, a new era of international cooperation began when the world’s two space powers shook hands in space.” One typical press account of the events, datelined Cape Canaveral, stated that “the project advanced space exploration and improved Cold War relations between the two countries.”
Leonov put it this way: “We were to show the world that Russians and Americans can work together, and what is most important—they can create a common rescue system so that any spacecraft could be rescued in space.” His spaceshipmate Kubasov concurred: “It laid the foundations for further cooperation in space between the two countries.”
|If Earthside history teaches anything, it is that Moscow was indeed the capital of an “evil empire” and the world is far better off that the Soviet regime wound up on the “ash heap of history”.|
NASA’s chief astronaut during the Shuttle-Mir program in the mid-1990s, Charles Precourt, was even more enthusiastic about the practical benefit of space friendship. It will, he wrote for a NASA history book on the project, “provide the psychological impetus for politicians to force themselves to find an agreement to disputes that otherwise they wouldn’t.” This will happen, he believes, “because they’ll look up there and say, ‘Well, we have an investment in that, too. We have to keep this relationship going in a proper direction,’ rather than doing something rash.”
Again, this planet’s historical record is inconsistent with this interpretation, which seems to place the international space flights in the role of the cause, rather than the consequence, of improved international relations. ASTP could happen because it symbolized the success of Nixon’s policy of détente with the USSR (the policy came first). However, subsequent joint space projects were cancelled in the late 1970s by President Jimmy Carter (the man who had earlier warned about having “an inordinate fear of communism”) in response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and Africa.
The cooperation resumed only as the USSR was collapsing in the early 1990s. Shuttle-Mir and the critical role of Russia in the International Space Station were enabled by the rise of a freer, more democratic Russian society, not by inertia from decades-old space handshakes.
Even if Apollo-Soyuz had never happened, Shuttle-Mir (in some form) would have become possible in the political context of the early 1990s, and both countries’ space teams would have found a way to proceed to the space dockings with little additional effort, even without any historical precedents. Alternately, with Apollo-Soyuz as historical fact, a surviving Soviet regime—with its political repressions, imperialistic client states, massive nuclear and conventional strike forces, and soul-killing society of deception—would never have been given veto power over the centerpiece of Western human space flight, the space station.
So where does this leave the space handshakers? Well, like the robin who may think its song ushers in the spring, or the rooster who thinks he commands the sun to rise, a lot of spacemen in Russian and in America enjoy recalling their roles—honorable ones, to be sure—in carrying out such a mission. If they want to think their flight caused the international thaws rather than merely reflected them, they’ve earned the right to their point of view—just as sober historians, practical politicians, and sensible space buffs have the right to gently refuse to believe them.
So this “space handshake diplomacy” is a very unreliable basis for advocating future space policy. “I am convinced that all future flights will be international,” Leonov said at the NASM. Stafford agreed that international efforts are needed for the return to the Moon and making several expeditions to Mars. But why should merely saying so make it true?
|If they want to think their flight caused the international thaws rather than merely reflected them, they’ve earned the right to their point of view—just as sober historians, practical politicians, and sensible space buffs have the right to gently refuse to believe them.|
The future role of international partners in American projects under development is only now being assessed, and a cold-blooded assessment of costs versus benefits needs to be made, independent of feel-good boasts from space pilots. Partnerships do seem to give projects political (and budgetary) credibility within each nation, and they do force open windows of contacts so that countries don’t succumb to fearful misinterpretations of each other’s intentions and capabilities.
Teaming arrangements have given some nations critical supporting roles on the major programs in the US and Russia, and one of the best examples are the robot arms supplied to the space shuttle and to the ISS by Canada. European equipment has significantly enhanced scientific benefits from shuttle flights.
But for the biggest promises often touted for the “grand alliance” of the US and Russia, the scorecard is much less clear-cut. Having the Russians along was supposed to make the project cheaper, but it cost more to build the proper international interfaces. Launching all components into a northerly orbit accessible from Russia increased the space transportation cost by billions of dollars.
Nor did the Russian presence make the project faster, better, or safer, as it turned out. NASA was supposed to “learn from the immense body of Russian experience”, but it seems they never did—they just flew their missions and learned the necessary lessons directly. Repeated inquiries to NASA to specify things that had been learned exclusively from Russian experience have resulted in a pitiful short list of trivial “lessons”.
It can even be argued that the most important lessons learned were harmful. On Shuttle-Mir, NASA watched space crews dodge death on almost a monthly basis and may have subconsciously absorbed the lesson that since nobody had actually died, you could get sloppy with safety reviews and it wouldn’t ever bite you. They should have known better—and for most of its glorious history, NASA did know better—but the gradual degradation of NASA’s “safety culture” that led to the Columbia disaster was developing during the same years as Shuttle-Mir missions were flying. Dodge enough bullets (as the crew of Mir did in those days), they may have figured, and it proves you’re bulletproof forever.
As far as “not speaking about politics”, that may be an acceptable rule in the narrow theater of spacecraft operations, but it is not a technique that can be generalized to apply to international partnerships as a whole. There, national policy requires a relationship with moral law as well as amoral “realpolitik”. There are plenty of regimes that the US simply would not partner with in the 1980s and 1990s, and for similar reasons, will not partner with today.
Russia and the United States, and the world’s other spacefaring nations, will be conducting complex and challenging space missions in decades to come. Some efforts will be in parallel, some will be united, and some will be completely unrelated to each other. Strategists have a lot of information to base their choices on, except for one type of useless advice: they should smile when the old spacemen talk to them, and listen politely to their opinions, and applaud them, and then disregard them as soon as they’ve left the room.