Sixty-one years after Yuri Gagarin's first flight in orbit, the dream of space as a site of peace remains unfulfilled. Are we any wiser for it?

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What a year for symbols of peace and progress. On Thursday, April 7, the UN General Assembly removed Russia from the Human Rights Council on which it had sat for weeks while displacing 10 million Ukrainians, internally and abroad. In the inadequacy of an international organization formed after World War II to sustain peace among core members, we are confronted by a stark divide between aspiration and outcome. What would it take for us to rally around a dream again? To feel like part of a truly global project?

An uneven history of peace through space

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took his historic orbital flight aboard Vostok 1: a mere 108 minutes from ignition to landing, but a groundbreaking mission all the same. Four years after the Soviet Union had put the first animal into orbit (a dog, Laika, sent to die there in early safety tests), our first human circling the Earth ushered in a new age for space exploration.

This was, of course, during the space race, an international competition haunted by World War II and the U.S.’s arrival at the nuclear bomb before the USSR. (More than haunted, actually: in Operation Paperclip, the U.S. recruited some 1,600 Nazi engineers and scientists to benefit from the Third Reich’s wartime research. Wernher von Braun, who designed the V-2 rocket that helped devastate Europe in wartime, became the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and designed the launch vehicle that took U.S. citizens to the moon).

The U.S. was not pleased that the USSR was beating it to a range of space-faring firsts, and when John F. Kennedy ran for president, he did so on a platform of winning the space race for the US. And yet, in 1963, Kennedy then did something curious in a speech to the UN General Assembly. First, the president called for highly ambitious levels of international cooperation, for

[t]he task of building the peace lies with the leaders of every nation, large and small. For the great powers have no monopoly on conflict or ambition. The cold war is not the only expression of tension in this world—and the nuclear race is not the only arms race. Even little wars are dangerous in a nuclear world. The long labor of peace is an undertaking for every nation—and in this effort none of us can remain unaligned. To this goal none can be uncommitted.

What made the speech unusual, though, was this specific proposal:

Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—in the field of space—there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a 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 someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.

Address before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, September 20, 1963

Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated. We’ll never know what his intentions really were, when he made this curious call to end the space race and pursue mutual collaboration in extraterrestrial ventures. Whether economically motivated or genuinely peace-driven, his dream of collaborative spacefaring died with him. Lyndon B. Johnson carried on the man-on-the-moon mission as a national project, which Richard Nixon presided over in its fulfillment in 1969.

In that same year, the USSR achieved the first rudimentary orbital station, by linking two vehicles together in space. In 1971, it achieved the first low-orbit space station, Salyut 1. Further Salyut stations, which invited member-countries of the Warsaw Pact into space, were succeeded by Mir in 1986: the first modular space station, its name meaning “Peace” or “World”. Mir was crewed until 2000, well past the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the International Space Station retired its shuttle in 2011, the Soyuz spaceflight program became the only means of delivering humans to the ISS until 2020, when the US-based private company SpaceX stepped up.

Some readers here might be fortunate to remember that era: the possibilities associated with early space travel, and the sense that the world was watching together as we took our first steps into the great beyond.

A peace in sharp decline

The ISS was a dream of international collaboration in space: Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Russia coming together to support research missions in low orbit. The first piece launched in 1998, and the first residents arrived in 2000. One segment lies under U.S. purview, and another under Russian. The mission was supposed to be endorsed until 2024 on both sides, after which the ISS would gradually be retired and then de-orbited. However, last year Russia started to demonstrate a significant indifference to the joint venture. When it blew up a defunct satellite from the ground (demonstrating its capability for such a maneuver), Russia created a slew of debris that put the ISS, including its own Russian cosmonaut, in danger.

And now, of course, with Russia under sanctions due to its war in Ukraine, collaboration over space missions has further collapsed. The ISS is currently home to three members of the Russian space program (Roscosmos) and four members of NASA. But the European Space Agency has suspended work on a joint rover mission, Russia has canceled its scientific work with Germany and halted rocket-engine deliveries to the U.S., and the head of Roscomos, Dmitry Rogozin, has made wild threats (dismissed by NASA as typical of his character) about abandoning the ISS to crash and burn.

Even without the war, though, the international fraternity embodied by the ISS was already on its way out, to be replaced by nation-specific and privately funded space missions. China launched the core module of its own station, Tianhe, last year, and is on its way to launching an orbital telescope, Xuntian, in the next five years. Russia plans to have a station of its own in 2025. And in the US, NASA is partnering with private companies (significantly, under Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, entrenching the age of the billionaire in space) to yield a commercial-use low-orbit station, along with the Gateway station, set to orbit the moon in preparation for deeper-space exploits.

Another age of adjacent space-faring

In 2019’s Ad Astra, Brad Pitt starred as a broody astronaut sent far from Earth to recover a father putting humanity at risk in pursuit of alien life. A core theme of the sobering picture, as it walks viewers through an imagined near-future of middling privatized bases and ongoing turf wars on the moon and Mars, is the folly of looking for connection out there when humanity is right here.

It’s hard to call such a desolate depiction of future space travel optimistic, but by throwing in stark relief the relative emptiness of the cosmos and the fierceness of human need for connection, the film does indeed make that appeal. We can make better choices, it argues: choices to build together and for each other. We don’t have to accept socially destructive delusions of individual grandeur from people with access to the technology needed to do the rest of us great harm.

2013’s Gravity, for all its cringe-inducing science goofs, made a similar point when Sandra Bullock, in a race for survival, moved from one national vessel to another. The camera simply had to linger on little details in each module to hint at the idea of different cultures united under a shared hope for an era of collaboration in outer space. An adjacent sort of collaboration, perhaps, but one still present in some form.

How far are we now from that ideal? And how much farther afield are we drifting?

Peace as a legacy of struggle

Yuri Gagarin didn’t live long enough to see the U.S. put a man on the moon, or any of the Soviet stations that came soon after. In the bitterest of ironies, the USSR pulled him off space missions so as not to have their hero die in a sordid public spectacle, but in 1968 he still suffered a fatal crash, five weeks out of a terrestrial flight-training program.

Some readers here might be fortunate to remember that era: the possibilities associated with early space travel, and the sense that the world was watching together as we took our first steps into the great beyond. I was born in the year of both Mir and the Challenger explosion: a striking juxtaposition of hope and fragility. A reminder that even our best-laid plans for progress and peace often go hopelessly astray.

I don’t think any of us would have chosen the current patchwork of international space missions: The rise of privatized travel, especially at price points that could fund so many aid missions here on Earth. The reign of billionaire pet projects over science-driven global alliances. Escapism to Mars in lieu of deeper investment in combatting climate change. The increasing stratification of orbital and extraterrestrial ventures in lieu of bringing more countries together under common cause.

Sixty-one years after Gagarin’s historic space flight, and fifty-nine after Kennedy’s curious UN General Assembly address, what’s changed for us, really? Are we not still, in practice, speaking of a greater peace in space than the one that we, as individual nations and now businesses and billionaires, pursue? Has the aim ever been to further human knowledge and technology for all? Or simply to be the first? The most self-sustaining? The most independently resilient to future terrestrial hardship?

It’s easy to over-determine an answer. To take a look at the shape of current spacefaring missions and their scientific output in our third year of pandemic, amid a horrifying war in Eastern Europe, and to wonder (or despair) at the division between aspiration and outcome. But for this year’s International Day of Human Space Flight, we can choose to lean into the questions instead.

What would an ideal investment in human space exploration look like?

And to pull it off in our lifetimes, what would we have to achieve, concomitantly, in the way of a more sustainable peace on the ground?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.