Space Age: Rivalry and Cooperation

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Samoylovskaya Natalya, Deputy Chairman of Russian Young/Student Pugwash Junior Scientific Fellow at the Center for Euro-Atlantic Security, Institute of International Studies of MGIMO University

“Having orbited the Earth in a spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let’s preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it!” Y. Gagarin

USSR and USA – First in Space

On April 7, 2011, the UN General Assembly, “remembering that April 12 1961 was the date of the first human space flight carried out by Mr. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet citizen born in Russia[1],” proclaimed April 12 the International Day of Human Space Flight. This historic event opened the way for space exploration for the benefit of all mankind and symbolically marks the beginning of the space age in human history.

Fifty-six years ago the famous “Poyekhali” [Let’s go!] was heard on the air. It followed a colossal amount of work carried out by outstanding scientists and engineers who laid the foundations of the Soviet space science and industry. The Soviet road to space was amazing. The country laid in ruins in the mid-1940s. A bit more than a decade into the post-war period, it launched the first artificial earth satellite Sputnik 1, or PS-1, in 1957; the first animals – space dogs Belka and Strelka – made the orbital space flight and before safely returning to Earth in 1960. The year of 1961 saw the first flight of man into space.

A month after Yuri Gagarin’s flight, May 5, 1961, A. Shepard became the first American astronaut to travel into space, and J. Glenn made an orbital flight in 1962. Nevertheless, the USSR maintained its superiority. V. Tereshkova became the world’s first female cosmonaut in 1963, and V. Leonov became the first human to conduct extravehicular activity exiting the capsule for the spacewalk in 1965. [2]

The Soviet achievements invited competition for supremacy in spaceflight capability between the USA and the USSR and more fierce rivalry. Still there was room for cooperation. The Apollo program, which was adopted under J. F. Kennedy and aimed to accomplish a manned Moon landing, was largely explained by the desire to beat the USSR. Nevertheless, Americans tried to engage the Soviets in the project. In 1962, the first cooperation agreement was signed between the USSR Academy of Sciences and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It marked the first step towards Soviet-American collaboration on space issues. In future, the combined efforts of NASA and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR would play a major role in joint space projects.

The Cuban Missile crisis that erupted a few months later, made everyone understand the need to preserve and form communication channels to avert a catastrophe. Only the herculean efforts of the two leaders to realize their responsibility for the repercussions of the nuclear confrontation allowed achieving it. The United Nations mediated the work to establish a legal framework which would limit the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space. This work resulted in 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.

Under R. Nixon, the Apollo 11 spaceflight launched in 1969 landed the first humans on the Moon, with American astronaut N. Armstrong becoming the first human to do the Moon walk. However, President Nixon’s administration “did not go dizzy from success” and effectively promoted Russian-American cooperation to reduce tensions between the states. The results of the political will exercised by the US and Soviet leaders in this domain, surpassed all the expectations.

On May 24, 1972, the Soviet Union and the US signed the Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, which culminated in the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the 1975 linking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Soyuz command module. On May 26, 1972, the two countries additionally inked the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty) and the Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Offensive Arms[3]. Not only did the arrangements mark the end of marathon talks on limiting offensive arms but also institutionalized supporting military activities in space.

The US-Russia space dialogue involving historical achievements were followed by waning cooperation, as the Carter and Reagan administrations prioritized other tasks and the world faced Afghanistan-related political developments. Moreover, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), actively promoted by President Reagan, played its part because it pushed the USSR into building up space weapons until the country’s collapse.

The breakup of the USSR eliminated crucial ideological differences between the US and a new Russia, opening good prospects for cooperation on an equal footing. In an unprecedented collaboration, the United States, Russia and European countries launched the International Space Station (ISS), which emerged as a poster child for such an equal partnership. Only joint efforts helped to complete the groundbreaking project on space exploration. For all the hardship, the ISS became a testament to potential military-technical cooperation on a mutual basis, offering ample opportunities for peaceful space exploration. Unfortunately, certain political events prevented the parties from transferring the success of space cooperation to other spheres and caused another deterioration in US-Russian relations.

“Acting for All Mankind”: Technologies and Awareness

Space exploration allowed tremendous scope both for human progress and unprecedented military technologies capable of wiping everything off the face of the earth. As the United States and Russia still remain the major nuclear powers, the awareness of responsibility to the world community is the main call for intensive cooperation on non-proliferation and outer space exploration, the two interconnected issues.

The crisis in US-Russian relations emphasizes the necessity to return to the two countries’ practical cooperation on space science and technology, which can act as a confidence-building measure for entering into a mutually-beneficial partnership. Joint space programs may lay the foundation for long-term cooperation contributing to a joint anti-missile system and its de-politicization. In this context, intensive dialogue between experts and the general public, which has often stabilized US-Russian relations in times of crises, plays an important role.

The analysis of US-Russian space cooperation reveals that the two countries’ political will to seek compromises and to jointly address issues remains a deciding factor in ironing out differences. Moreover, the major powers’ willingness to surmount all difficulties will determine whether humanity will develop, benefiting from technological achievements and improving its quality of life, or it will be teetering on the brink of a nuclear war.

[1] A/RES/65/271 Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on April 7, 2011. URL:

[2] The word «leonize», which sounds almost like Leonov’s family name and denotes “to exit for a spacewalk”, was coined in the English language.

[3] The Second Round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, commonly known as SALT II, ended with a treaty on nuclear arms control that the United States and the Soviet Union signed in 1979.

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