The emergence of international cooperation in space from 1950 onwards till 2000

The dreadful display of violence of nuclear power increased awareness as regard the fragility of   human life on earth and the dangers of uncontrolled technology. In the wake of World War II the USSR and the USA, the two political giants with substantial financial ressources, had a growing interest in space-based applications in order to dominate strategically their opponent. Whereas the launcher industry was still at the early stages, the superpowers were left to work with their own ingenuity to outsmart their adversary. In the beginning both were developping intercontinental ballistic missiles but for strategic reasons, they decided to reuse this technology for orbiting. This competition became a reality when in 1957, after the announcement of the launch at the International Geophysical Year, the first satellite called Spoutnik 1 was put into orbit by the Soviet Inion. This was a milestone in the history of science and marked the start of the Space Race with the scientific research being put forward. The US convinced of their technologocial superioty until that moment were therefore destabilized by the fact that the Soviets were staying one step ahead. As they saw themselves at the cutting edge of technology, they invested millions without hesitation to foster the competitiveness of the space industry. The space sector was made a token of prestige by this unbridled enthousiasm for the space conquest in a climate of strained  political relations. Space technology was also seen as a display of power. But this race lost momentum because of the USSR’s ailing economy and budget cuts in space programmes.  The Americans fully asserted their domination when in 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped a foot on lunar ground for the first time in the history of humankind.

spoutnikSpoutnik 1 (58 cm)

At this time, it became clear according to officials that outer space, just like the sea and the air at one time,  was to be monitored for strategic purposes.  Space was seen as a worthwhile asset for national security. However, the USA and the USSR came to realise that the appropriation of Outer Space for military purposes was a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in so far as they would not be able to control it. The Soviet Union took the first steps of the international cooperation in space proposing in 1958 at the United Nations to set up the Committee of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In the following time, they approved the Outer Space Treaty, ratified in 1967, and the Moon Treaty, signed in 1979, that established the legal framework sanctifying the non appropriation principle of Space and celestial objects. Thanks to those treaties, the international cooperation in space would flourish in the scientific domain. During the brief window of « détente » from 1975 onwards during which time the political tension decreased there were more than 20 international agreements and more than 30 international and interinstitutional conventions.

530x_10-octobre10 October 1967 © ONU

When Youri Gagarine said « I see the Earth… it’s beautiful ! » in 1961 on board of the Vostok 3KA spaceship, he became the first man to observe the curvature of the Earth. Space sciences have changed the relationship between our environnement and us but also our world view. They have a higher calling that concerns all humankind. Cooperation in space must be based on this understanding. The best exemple of this is the docking of the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft with the American Apollo spacecraft creating the  first Soviet-American workteam. In the Meanwhile, numerous space agencies were founded such as the CNES in France or the DLR in Germany. Since 1957 more and more countries aim at developping space capacity relying on international cooperation to make investments profitable such as China, India or Brazil in the 80s. The cooperation network is getting more and more complexified with more and more framework agreements and international treaties.

Video of the docking of the Apollo spacecraft and Soyuz spacecraft:

Often seen as the key example of cooperation in space and one of the World’s most complex machines ever built by men, the International Space Station is the result of the collaboration between the American, Russian, European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies. The orbiting of the first piece of puzzle, the Russian-built central module Zarya, is  the starting point of a ten years long assembly in 1998 because dozens of pieces would be shipped afterwards. Since then, a hundred of spationauts took turns in the modern and brand-new ISS to study Microgravity, Astronomy and Materials science.

It is clear that space science has been considerably impactful on the international politics of the second half of the 20th century and can be described, as Neil Armstrong said, as a « giant leap for mankind ».Scientific diplomacy plays a key role  in increasing the Human understanding of Space which still is  full of mysteries. Since 1957, space exploration had the wind in its sails. The space sector can notably welcome the success of the CNSA space mission on the Moon (Chang’e Programme) or the ISRO Mars mission (Mars Orbiter Mission Programme, Mangalyaan). However, those major projects were chosen a while ago and the future of space exploration remains uncertain. The transition to the 21th century is a watershed moment for Space Policy as countries have to cope with globalisation and economic crises. Rationalization is the new approach to the space industry with the commercialization of its applications, especially in Europe where officials claim that telecommunications are critical to the economic development of the territory.

Martin Sarret

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