Opinion: The Final Frontier of Diplomacy

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, the first woman to take part in the European Space Agency’s underground astronaut training in 2016 to prepare for life in outer space, aboard the ISS in early 2020.

Credit: ESA

The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 kicked off an intense period of competition between the United States and the USSR for dominance of space, which was bookended by American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon in 1969. Since that early matchup, space exploration has served our common aspirations on Earth to learn more about our place in the universe and to set aside differences in developing peaceful technologies. This spirit must continue.

American leadership—our unique combination of private-sector entrepreneurship and the public-spirited convening and funding power of government—is largely responsible for the development of space as a realm of peaceful discovery. The International Space Station, which former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin championed in the 1990s, today brings together global space agencies from the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada in research in fields including astrobiology, astronomy, meteorology and physics.

The U.S. has developed leading national security technologies and cultivated the most creative, entrepreneurial and profitable tech sectors. These have improved lives in America and all over the world. NASA has sent rovers to examine the surface of Mars and orbiters to survey it from a distance, while space agencies from Europe, Russia, India, the Middle East and China also have explored Mars.

Every space-exploring nation is a signatory to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which forbids space-based nuclear weapons and requires that the Moon and other celestial bodies be used only for peaceful purposes.

In its nearly three years as a new branch of the United States Armed Forces, the Space Force has continued to grow in its responsibility of protecting U.S. interests in and from space as well as making space safe for a key tenet of democracies: vigorous, principled and open free-market commerce. Space is increasingly at the crossroads of what connects us here on Earth, with satellites carrying television broadcasts, powering global financial networks, transmitting vast amounts of data, synchronizing cellular networks and optimizing critical infrastructure.

However, even without weapons, space still carries the potential for undemocratic actors to damage economies, spread misinformation and otherwise undermine freedom-loving nations. The U.S. Space Force exists to ensure that space remains a domain for freedom and not a new frontier for authoritarianism.

As the embodiment of mankind’s collective yearning for knowledge about its place in the universe, space exploration has brought together nations that do not always get along here on Earth. Russia, increasingly mired in a conflict of its own making in Ukraine, has retracted its threats to withdraw from the International Space Station. In September, an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts were launched to the International Space Station from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a spacecraft operated by the Russian space agency. Russia’s only active female cosmonaut is expected to travel to the orbital station this month aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

Space, too, is an area of collaboration for former rivals. The Abraham Accords recently celebrated its second anniversary of peace and normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The two countries now collaborate on a number of space projects including plans for a joint launch of the “Beresheet 2” space mission to land an uncrewed spacecraft on the surface of the Moon by 2024, when both countries plan to plant their flags alongside each other. These developments offer hope that space exploration can transcend our earthly differences and continue to offer a venue for cooperation and discovery.

The Artemis program, meanwhile, links NASA with its peer agencies in Europe, Japan and Canada in working toward the goal of reestablishing human presence on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Artemis envisions a role for emerging spacefaring nations such as Brazil, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. With a permanent lunar outpost on the surface and a gateway for astronauts and robots in lunar orbit, the Artemis program will show that our ambitions in space are as grand as ever. It also demonstrates the continuing power of space exploration to bring people together here on Earth through technologies that advance both discovery and freedom.

Bonnie Glick is the director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue and is a former deputy administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Daniel DeLaurentis is a senior research fellow in the Krach Institute and a professor in Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where he also directs the Center for Integrated Systems in Aerospace.