Recently the Chinese have begun the process of building a space station, and they have conducted several successful space missions, including sending spacecraft to the Moon and Mars. Moreover, the Chinese and the Russians have signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding cooperation in the construction of an International Lunar Research Station (cf. The Strategic Implications of the China-Russia Lunar Base Cooperation Agreement: With their agreement, the partners are signaling an alternative to a U.S.-led order in space by Namrata Goswami). Many are concerned with national rivalries on Earth being extended into space, and the consequences that could follow from this, from increased tensions to Earth to all-out space war.
How might we constructively approach these dangers? We could take a page out of the Cold War playbook and pursue diplomatic initiatives in space preemptively, rather than doing so following several decades of rising tension accompanied by an arms race. One might object that an arms race in space is excluded by treaty. While this is true, this does not exclude the building of space infrastructure on the ground that could be launched into space in a crisis, and it also does not prevent either side from engaging in space militarization secretly, in violation of existing treaties.
Much US-Soviet Cold War diplomacy was mere window-dressing, covering the deeper game of the arms race and proxy wars pursued to expand influence, but wasn’t all window dressing. Sincere and concerted efforts were made on both sides to expand cultural and scientific exchanges, despite the mistrust and the political tension. Rivalry and competition cannot be realistically eliminated today any more than they could be eliminated during the Cold War, but it is just possible that the rivalry can be re-directed from antipathy and contempt to friendly rivalry, in which each side needs the other in order to spur themselves on beyond their respective comfort zones.
As the Chinese bring their space station to full functionality, the existence of both the ISS and the Chinese space station in orbit at the same time will present a unique opportunity for space diplomacy. In this context, I suggest that a mission be planned that re-enacts the Apollo-Soyuz Handshake in space, except with the Chinese now in their knock off of a Soyuz, followed by members of the ISS crew visiting the Chinese space station, and crew of the Chinese space visiting the ISS. Not only would this be good diplomacy, it would also be practice in space operations to make these visits between space stations.
A mission such as this could be followed by further missions based on the same template. If the US and China both develop a base on the Moon, astronauts could shake hands on the Moon, and each could visit the other’s base. If multiple nation-states send missions to Mars, astronauts could shake hands on Mars. Alongside all the strife and violence of the news, it would be an inspiring series of images, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz handshake in space, iterated across the solar system, as far as human beings reach.
Such a mission, or a series of missions, would constitute a constructive form of competition, and this is an important point that should not be underestimated. I never tire of recommending two papers by Eleni Panagiotarakou, Agonal Conflict and Space Exploration and War — What is it good for? Nonviolent was an an impetus for space exploration, in which Panagiotarakou argues that the Cold War Space Race was a form of non-violent competition, and that:
“Insofar as the Cold War was nonviolent,and insofar as it prompted the two main political and military protagonists to engage in a competitive endeavour of superiority (e.g., Space Race), it resembled the ancient Greek spirit of agon whereby the objective was not to annihilate one’s opponent but to surpass them in a struggle for excellence.”
I believe that this is the only possible approach to future human activities that is consistent with human nature. Any attempt to organize a human future in space based on the idea that space development is a “blank slate” or a “fresh start” in which we can avoid the failures of our terrestrial history (on which cf. The Blank Slate of Outer Space), or based on the idea that humanity can be ideally unified in space, is merely Utopian in the most trivial sense of the term. Nonviolent competition may involve significant resources, and we should expect complaints about the amount of resources that could be absorbed by a US-Chinese Space Race, but a constructive competition is far, far better than the destructive competition of war, and if we attempt to repress competition, simply pretending that it isn’t happening, we are likely to get accidentally caught up in actual war, or other destructive means of competition. We must never allow ourselves to lose sight of this.
Another possibility remains beyond accommodating human, all-too-human rivalry. We could change human nature by changing human beings. However, I regard this alternative as significantly more dystopian than any scenario of human competition and rivalry playing out in space — Homer’s contest in outer space would not only be a release mechanism for conflict, but it also achieves something of permanent value.
It is perhaps what is best in us as human beings when we strive for excellence, just as it is a tacit admission of defeat when we acknowledge, “I no longer strive to strive towards such things (Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)”