The politics of space

Guest post by Nicholas Robinson.


(Photo: Shamil Zhumatov)

On 14 December 1972, humans walked on the Moon for the last time. Forty-two years later, no one has gone anywhere further than low-Earth orbit. The most ambitious project since the Apollo programmes is arguably the heavily-criticised International Space Station (ISS), an international collaboration costing over $100 billion. That project’s future is now in doubt, as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to shut down the station by 2020. This announcement comes following American sanctions against Russia. NASA has essentially stopped working with Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency), except on ISS-related matters. The USA pays Russia millions of dollars to send astronauts to the ISS, because since the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011 it no longer has the capacity to send people into space itself. In fact, nobody has had the capacity to send people to the Moon since 1972, and the Space Shuttles were themselves designed in the 1970s.

The fact is that astrophysics and space programmes have generally been used as means to a political end. The Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union was not really about science or exploration – it was about politics and defence. Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, explains: ‘The President did not talk about discovering the origin of the Moon, or even about bringing back samples for study. All he seemed to be interested in was sending someone there and bringing him home … What’s so special about space technology? Suddenly, I understood. Sending people to orbit the Earth or robots to orbit the Sun requires rockets – big, powerful rockets. Those same rockets can be used for nuclear war.’ In other words: if you can hit a target 400,000 km away with a missile, you can easily hit anywhere on Earth with a missile. It’s worth noting that, of all 12 men to have walked on the Moon, only one was a scientist: Harrison Schmitt, a geologist.

During the Cold War, rivalry between America and the USSR happened to encourage space exploration. Today, poor Russian-West relations are hindering it. Given how underfunded NASA, and science in general, are (the National Science Foundation, the major source of American federal research funding, currently has a budget of only around $7 billion), it is rather amazing how much they get done. Even in the face of politics.

One thought on “The politics of space”

  1. I really find this interesting. Space does indeed deserve our attention. And this is very true -> “The fact is that astrophysics and space programmes have generally been used as means to a political end. ”

    Thank you for sharing!


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