Lovers residing in New York City have plenty of options to spend time together, but lying on the grass of Central Park to admire the sky doesn’t sound like an interesting idea. There’s almost nothing to be seen, for the sky is “shadowed” by the city lights. Geeky lovers will disagree, though; on certain days, the International Space Station is visible to the naked eye.
The ISS may not seem like the most astounding of modern engineering achievements, in light of the Apollo Program or the cinematographic landing of a car-sized robot on the surface of Mars. However, once we consider the non-technical aspects involved, the orbiting microgravity lab is an unparalleled achievement in comparison. It is the product of a collaborative effort between nations — an approach to nature exploration and scientific pursuit that nurtures hope in the
future of our species.
Despite the success of this international effort, nationalistic and militaristic arguments still prevail as driving forces in the development of the required technologies, as exemplified by the high level of propaganda surrounding the recent rocket launches by Iran and North Korea. The fact that Western politicians reacted with fear to those countries aiming to develop ballistic missiles shows the problem is not one-sided. Not surprisingly, those fears were not mentioned when South Korea conducted its own satellite launch shortly after their enemy to the north did so.
It can be argued that this is not a per-country competition. Rather, it is a race between the West and the East — reminiscent of Cold War dynamics. However, there is some evidence against this notion: Besides the ISS example, the United States currently relies on Russian rockets to send astronauts to space, and NASA’s next-generation spacecraft will have a service module built by the European Space Agency.
Nevertheless, such collaboration is not seen among non-Western countries. For instance, there is no obvious alignment between Iran and North Korea, and China wants to be self-sufficient as well, even though they started out with help from Russia. Besides, there is high competition among Western countries, including private companies such as SpaceX, which is in the high-profile market of satellite launching. Additionally, Russia, Europe, China and India are working to have their own constellation of satellites for location purposes, aiming for independence from the GPS system, which is maintained by the United States.
With a few exceptions, the state of affairs in space exploration still resembles the first-come-first-served mentality of the Age of Discovery. Even though that is an expected approach, such behavior is childish. Countries whose authorities see rockets mostly as ads for nationalist pride notwithstanding, developed democratic nations should at least invest in less provincial and more collaborative approaches now that their own phase of selfish, exhibitionist muscle-flexing is in the past.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 12 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]