Published: March 28, 2024 By


            “Ad astra per aspera”; to the stars through difficulty. As a society, we’ve faced a multitude of difficulties in trying to reach the stars. From failed launches to limited technology, we’ve faced it all. Our biggest challenge, however, is not the lengthy travel time required to go anywhere in space nor is it the uninhabitable characteristics of nearby planets; the biggest opponent we face is each other.

In 2021, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile that put considerable debris into near-Earth orbit. Astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) were forced to take precautionary cover (Neuman 2021). Detritus in Earth’s orbit is not a new concern. The Kessler Effect describes a phenomenon in which space debris in low-Earth orbit will collide with each other, creating more debris. This continues ad infinitum, creating hazards for satellites and spacecraft (Wall 2022). According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), there are around 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting Earth (Garcia 2024), and this number will only increase. Beyond the technological implications, there are considerable consequences for international relations. As space exploration becomes more internationally pursued, nations will have to work together to avoid causing significant damage to not only others, but themselves. As of right now, NASA is the only space agency that is effectively used as a diplomatic power to promote space cooperation with other nations, because it’s the only space agency with the power to do so. The United States, and by extension, NASA, has a history of excellence in space as well as considerable funding for technological innovation.

            The end of World War II resulted in two global superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union. Ideological and political differences (notably the support of communism by the Soviet Union) resulted in a race for military might (Burton 2020). One of the rings in which the two nations fought was space. The United States and the Soviet Union competed against each other in a number of ways, most famously in the great Space Race. In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, an artificial low-Earth satellite ( Editors 2020). This ushered in an era of mounting space exploration in both nations. In 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In 1969, after many different attempts, both failed and successful by both nations, the United States launched Apollo 11, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, effectively ending the Space Race (SMD Content Editors 2024). Since then, the United States and NASA have steadily continued to pioneer space exploration.

            The Soviet Union achieved their own notable successes and failures in the Space Race; from Sputnik to Laika, Belka, and Strelka, to the first man in space, they have their own storied history (Hanes 2023). Since the Cold War, the official Russian space agency has undergone multiple administrative changes. Originating with the Soviet Space Program (active from 1955 to 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union (Reichl 2017)) the program was, after multiple overhauls, reincarnated as a state corporation named Roscosmos in 2015 (Pandey 2020). Recently, Roscosmos unveiled its plans for a new space station, after announcing the decision to step away from using the International Space Station (ISS) (Sankaran 2022).

            NASA is not only a space agency, but a method of diplomacy in the U.S.’s arsenal, particularly in terms of soft power. The international cooperation that is promoted by the current and past administrations are a clear sign that NASA is used as a soft power bargaining chip, comparable to China’s “panda diplomacy” (Liang 2023) in the sense that they are both a uniquely national cultural phenomenon. In 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris issued the United States Space Priorities Framework, in which it is suggested that “space activities broaden and deepen our international partnerships” (Foust 2023). It’s notable that Russian astronauts are frequently on NASA-manned missions, whereas Chinese astronauts are not. I argue that NASA is the only space agency with the ability to be used as a method of diplomacy because it’s the only one with the power to do so, due to its history and its funding.

            The United States’s history of excellence in space exploration has led to it being a world leader in space. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon it signaled an end to the space race; NASA achieving the ultimate goal. The USSR had many notable achievements in terms of space, but in the eyes of the public, they did effectively ‘lose’ the Space Race. The ‘winning’ of the Space Race led to decades of space-related nationalism by the American people. This paved the way for decades of large budgets for NASA.

            Similar to the United States military funding, NASA funding is considerably larger than that of its peers. This has allowed for significant technological innovation in space exploration. As a result, NASA is at the forefront of space technology, and has become a “go-to” location for astronomers, astrophysicists, and engineers. In 2022, the United States spent 61 billion dollars on space programs (Vanleynseele 2022), 24 billion of which went to NASA (Planetary Society 2022). China was second in terms of funding, with a budget of about 12 billion dollars. After China, Japan came in third (approximately 5 billion dollars allocated), France in fourth (4 billion dollars) and finally, Russia fifth (3.5 billion dollars) (Vanleynseele 2022). It’s clear that NASA has significant funding, especially when considered against other countries. This allows for new technology, via the support of scientists and researchers. NASA often uses parts of its funding as grants towards universities. According to U.S. News, four of the top five universities for space science are in the U.S.: California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of California Berkeley, and Princeton (the remaining college is Cambridge)(U.S. News 2023). Between the funding for technology and research, and the support for academics, NASA is a desirable agency to work for.

            While different and often in conflict with each other, Russians and Americans share the same love and curiosity over space. A residual of the U.S.’s success in the Space Race is that space exploration has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are household names, with Armstrong’s famous phrase (“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”)(Stamm 2019) often quoted in pop culture. In a study conducted by Pew Research Center, 75% of American adults view NASA favorably, with 69% of adults saying that it is “essential” for the United States to maintain leadership in space exploration (Atske 2023). In a considerably polarized nation, this is a significant majority. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the three founding fathers of astronautics (along with Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth) is celebrated as a national hero. The Tsiolkovsky Fund, headquartered in Moscow, holds conferences to discuss the history of Russian space exploration and Tsiolkovsky’s impact (Siddiqi 2013). This shared passion for space seems to be an international one that even geopolitics cannot interfere with; Expedition 69, sponsored by NASA, has a crew of three NASA astronauts, three Roscosmos astronauts, and one United Arab Emirates astronaut (Garcia 2024). The only realm in which the United States works with Russia is in space, a direct demonstration of NASA’s diplomatic power.

            In conclusion, NASA is the only space agency with the ability to be used as a method of diplomacy because it’s the only one with the power to do so, due to its history and its funding. Looking forward, it should be researched whether there are other arenas in which rival countries could be influenced into cooperation due to a shared interest (namely, climate change). Because of the overarching and international ramifications of space exploration and climate change, it would be beneficial to attempt to find a diplomatic solution to reducing carbon emissions, halting deforestation, etc. Prominent American planetary scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “Look again at that dot. . . That’s home. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. . . every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Sagan 1994). In the midst of wars and geopolitics and conflicts and recessions and the strifes of day to day life, it's important to remember this. It’s profound that the endlessness of space can bring us together even as enemies; with effort and cooperation, it’s possible to take this grain of diplomacy and use it to solve other problems, working towards a better future for all.

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