Here’s something easy to forget but inspiring to recall: Even today, there is a very special place where Russians, Americans and others cooperate professionally — and harmoniously — despite Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the bitter confrontation between the Kremlin and the West.
That place is not the United Nations Security Council, which Russia is chairing this month and cynically abusing as a platform for disseminating lies and propaganda. Nor is it any venue previously used by Russians and Americans to exchange information as part of New START, the last remaining treaty to control nuclear weapons — because Russia walked out on it last month. In fact, it’s not any place on Earth.
The locale is instead ethereal, literally. It’s a stunningly beautiful structure of modules and solar arrays — the size of a football field — that zips around our planet every 90 minutes and can occasionally be glimpsed from down here with the naked eye: the International Space Station.
Founded in the 1990s by the space agencies of the US and Russia, the ISS subsequently embraced those of the European Union, Japan and Canada as well. It has hosted 266 visitors from 20 countries (though no Ukrainians yet). So the ISS is much more than a huge science lab in the sky. It’s also a testament to the human spirit whenever it decides to soar above earthly resentments and toward higher — dare I say celestial — destinies.
Such aspirations were indeed in the zeitgeist when the ISS was launched in 1998. The Cold War and its “space race” were thought to be over. NATO and Russia — Vladimir Putin wouldn’t become president until two years later — were pledging “mutual trust and cooperation.” It almost seemed as though the ISS symbolized the “End of History” and the the beginnings of pacific human progress.
Oh sure, nobody ever pretended that politics stopped at the atmosphere’s edge. A US law bars NASA from working with China’s space agency, for example, and no Chinese astronaut has ever visited the ISS. Tensions between the US and Russia have also often caused complications. In previous crises, Russia, which used to have a monopoly on shuttling astronauts to the station, warned that the Americans might instead have to use “trampolines” or “broomsticks” to get there.
But Russia never acted on its threats. And that’s the edifying part. The ISS may be on a precarious orbit just above politics and terrestrial strife, but it’s still up there, seeing 16 sunrises a day. As though to affirm its mystique, Russia said last year — after Putin invaded Ukraine and the West imposed sanctions — that it would withdraw from the station, but reversed itself this month, announcing it’ll keep collaborating until 2028.
The real transcendence, and therefore inspiration, isn’t happening down here, moreover, but up there. As best we can glean from what astronauts and cosmonauts report, the vibe among them tends to be professional, convivial, friendly and fun, no matter which nationalities happen to be present. The scientists are simply too busy to be snarky or vengeful.
After all, they’re researching all the things that may one day let us — not Russians or Americans but homo sapiens — colonize Mars. That includes the effects of radiation and zero gravity on humans, as well as space botany and fluid dynamics. In that latter category, incidentally, an Italian astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, made history in 2015 by drinking the first ethereal espresso out of a zero-g cup. I’ll need one of those before I book my ticket to Mars.
Do the astronauts and cosmonauts sometimes strain to steer clear of politics and clashing worldviews as they’re wafting through their modules? I do wonder. A year ago, three Russians raised international eyebrows when they docked at the ISS and entered wearing space suits in striking hues of yellow and blue, the colors of Ukraine. Coincidence or coded signal?
Even aside from geopolitics, the days of the ISS are numbered. Its technology is aging. And not only Russia but also China and India are building their own space stations, increasingly “nationalizing” the low-earth orbits. Simultaneously, several private companies are planning commercial stations. Near-Earth space is about to become an emerging market, a lawless frontier and a game board replicating terrestrial conflicts.
The plan for the ISS has always been to bring it down at the end of this decade. At that point NASA will nudge it into the atmosphere, where it’ll mostly burn up. The remaining fragments, with luck, will drop into the South Pacific near Point Nemo, the spot on Earth that’s farthest from land.
With that certainty, we might take a moment to reflect. Do we want a world, down here and up there, where our nations have at each other, seizing and reconquering this or that and following their narrow interests? Or should we renew the resolve to cooperate, for which the ISS stands? I don’t just mean in space, but also in international courts of law, treaties to ban nuclear weapons and stop climate change, and other endeavors.
Especially at a time of war, the ISS is a subtly glinting beacon in our night skies. But in a few years that torch will flare and then fall. In this way the station should remind all of us — not as Americans, Chinese or Russians, but as humans — to decide which way we want to go as a species.