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Reading Between the Lines of International Space Cooperation

J. W. Traphagan
Hyunjin Kim
December 5, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

One merit of the International Space Station has been its ability to inspire the idea that humans can work together, peacefully, as they expand into outer space. 

Indeed, many in the space community view the ISS as a profound example of how space exploration can bring together a diversity of cultures among nations with a common interest in space exploration.  

Following the early years of the American and Soviet space programs — which were grounded in nationalistic rhetoric and Cold War rivalry — the past few decades have been characterized by an expanding narrative of space as a context for international cooperation.  

The Artemis Accords have been hailed as a strong roadmap to the future of human space expansion, with statements often wrapped in pretty bows that emphasize the common national interests and ambitions of the participants in the multilateral agreement. Without question, signatories like the US, Japan, and the EU share interests in human expansion beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO), but often missed in the signing ceremonies is the fact that national motivations related to space exploration are often not, in reality, the same — or even all that well aligned. A quick look at the websites for the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows this clearly. NASA states its mission is to explore “the unknown in air and space,” and to innovate “for the benefit of humanity,” in a way that “inspires the world through discovery.” 

Lofty goals, to be sure.

The ESA’s website has a more terrestrial message: “The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.” Note the difference in focus. While NASA presents its mission in rather grandiose terms of exploration and inspiration for the entire world, the ESA’s focus is more squarely on what it can do to benefit Europe.  

Although the JAXA website doesn’t offer a pithy mission statement, a letter from JAXA President Yamakawa Hiroshi captures the main goals of the organization: To incorporate the results of our R&D into the social system and continue to serve the public … As the core implementing agency to support the Japanese government’s development and utilization of space technology, we work with pride in the challenging space and aeronautics field.” Not the most awe-inspiring statement, to be sure. The Japanese case focuses on pragmatism and support of broader Japanese governmental policies. 

There is certainly overlap in these three statements. And there is little question that for all of these agencies the primary goal is to do what their governments want them to, which is why the imagery, tone, and scope varies significantly and points to how both governments and citizens view their respective space programs. NASA presents its mission in the rather Star Trekian terms of exploration of the unknown and benefits to humanity — as a whole. The ESA, on the other hand, focuses on being Europe’s highway to heaven and has a more pragmatic tone of benefiting Europeans, and then maybe the world. Interestingly, JAXA’s leadership statement is quite specific — it focuses on research and development to support the Japanese “social system,” without reference to any grandiose benefits for humanity as a whole.  

The differences are subtle, but meaningful, and were evident at the Japan/US signing ceremony for the Framework Agreement on Peaceful Exploration of Space. The agreement outlines a variety of areas of cooperation between the two countries. Watching the video is fascinating because it shows the different tones represented in the comments of the speakers.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson described the signing as being among two “…nations poised to unlock the secrets of the universe. Space unites us…a victory for all of humanity…barriers overcome and new worlds understood…we chart a new chapter in a continuing adventure together.”

Following Nelson’s comments, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stated, “US/Japan space cooperation has entered a new era with Artemis…I strongly hope that this agreement will robustly promote our space cooperation even further” and he goes on to emphasize his desire that other aspects of the already strong US/Japan alliance will be intensified with the agreement.  

After Nelson’s magniloquent remarks, Kishida’s statement seems a bit bland, emphasizing not the grandeur of space exploration, the mysteries of the unknown, nor the benefits to humanity — but a rather prosaic pitch for a deepening alliance between two countries as it relates to space cooperation.  

Of course, the overall tone of the ceremony is complex. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, like Kishida, emphasizes a US/Japan bilateral cooperation in space, but quickly shifts to elevated American rhetoric, noting that cooperation has been part of a space race that “electrified the world, seizing the imaginations of millions of people awed by the men and women who dared to go into the unknown…it inspired generations of scientists, researchers, innovators, and dreamers”, he opines, as well as paving the way for many technological advances that have improved life on earth. Blinken closes his remarks by harkening back to the “soaring” ambitions of the Kennedy era in space exploration. He notes that Japan and the US will pave the way for countless technological advances, like those that have improved the lives of people across the planet, and adds that space exploration binds people together in pursuit of knowledge.  

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But the Japanese Foreign Minister, Hayashi Yoshimasa, managed to bring the ceremonies down to earth with his final comment characterizing the agreement between the two countries as one that will allow the pursuit of many projects to be “conducted efficiently.” Yoshimasa takes the wind out of Blinken’s soaring sails.  

Amidst the genuine positive feelings and hyperbole often at play as the age of international space cooperation continues to unfold, it’s important to understand that despite the successes of the ISS and agreements like the Artemis Accords, space agencies, and their constituent governments do not have entirely overlapping agendas, nor interests.

The ESA has 22 member states representing diverse cultures such as Poland, Norway, Italy, Romania, and the United Kingdom. Without even considering cultural differences, a quick look at the United Nations Human Development Index, which considers factors such as health, education, and income, shows how diverse the countries of ESA are: Norway ranks second with a score of 0.961 while Romania is fifty-third with a score of 0.821. The nominal GDP per capita for Norway in 2022 was $106,594; for Romania, it was $15,324. Even while largely sharing the political interests associated with liberal democracy, these differences underscore that an organization such as ESA must balance a varied range of national interests and ambitions that, then, must be coordinated with other space agencies with which ESA is cooperating.  

ESA, NASA, and JAXA all represent liberal democracies that — despite insignificant cultural, political, and economic differences — have much in common in terms of their interests. The situation becomes much more complex and blurred when we consider other major space powers such as China and Russia. The case of Russia shows how quickly the embroidery of cooperation can unravel. After years of positive comments between the US and Russia about cooperation in space (with the occasional tense moment), Russia’s war in Ukraine has seriously stressed the relationship.

Much less absurd is China’s approach, which can be gleaned from a white paper published in 2021. At a press conference on the publication, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, Yanhua Wu emphasized international cooperation and humanity’s “shared future” (not ambitions or interests) while making it clear that said shared future was not necessarily the one Americans or others have in mind: “China's space industry would actively participate in the global governance of outer space in the next five years and provide Chinese solutions and Chinese wisdom in areas such as monitoring and handling of near-earth objects, planetary protection, and space traffic management.”   

Interestingly, Wu emphasized China’s space industry as opposed to the space program and it is equally intriguing that he spins the rhetoric to display the importance of Chinese solutions and wisdom — read Chinese leadership and culture — as humans continue to expand beyond LEO and attempt to cooperate in the process. While I think we need to welcome Chinese solutions and wisdom, I also am convinced that these are unlikely to align neatly with the solutions and the wisdom of organizations like NASA, ESA, and JAXA.  

The political ideologies that motivate rhetoric and activities associated with the development of space programs are tied to other national ambitions. China, for example, not only wants a voice in space expansion, but that voice calls from a larger ascent of military, political, and economic power that has characterized Chinese goals over the past few decades. President Xi Jinping has regularly used ideological rhetoric aimed at stimulating nationalism and pushing for an assertive foreign policy that, as Kevin Rudd noted in Foreign Affairs, is “turbocharged by a Marxist-inspired belief that history is irreversibly on China’s side and that a world anchored in Chinese power would produce a more just international order.”

And this brings us to the crux of the issue. Despite the ‘for all humanity” rhetoric, what different countries and space organizations mean by this is not necessarily clear, or aligned. Nor is the extent to which specific national ambitions are recognized as shaping how people think about human exploration in space and the policies governments develop to promote those goals. Despite sometimes fustian claims of common human interests, space agencies are tied to local national politics and ideologies. One can see this clearly in JAXA’s emphasis on the “social system,” which appears to reflect the Japanese government’s policy to create what they refer to as Society 5.0, defined as “[a] human-centered society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space."  

There are several reasons why this is important. First, there is a tendency among space enthusiasts — and the space community in general — to pontificate on the idea of space exploration as uniting humans and being good for humanity without much attention paid to the fact that we live in a diverse world. Humanity is not a particularly unified thing; we are characterized by diverse cultures, nations, political systems, and identities and there is a conceit in thinking that space exploration is somehow uniformly good for “humanity,” or that varied humans will conceptualize the potential benefits and risks in similar ways. When leaders talk about space exploration and its benefits to “humanity” we should always question what is actually meant by humanity. We are simply too broad and complex a species to simplistically lump everyone together under the belief that we unproblematically share common interests and aspirations.  

Second, while cooperation is important and desirable, we need to be careful to avoid allowing kumbaya moments, like signing ceremonies, to overshadow the fact that different governments conceptualize and imagine space exploration in distinct ways. We may be able to cooperate, but that does not necessarily mean we are on the same page when it comes to interests and ambitions related to expansion and settlements. More overt awareness of this fact may help to avoid problems further down the road as countries with, in fact, different interests and ambitions work to cooperate on projects like creating a base on the Moon or putting boots on Mars.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that the American vision of space exploration, itself grounded in the ideology of manifest destiny, with ethnocentric and religious underpinnings, is not one shared by competitors like China and Russia.

Nor is it even shared by US allies like Japan and the European Union.  

What is striking about the agreement ceremony between Japan and the US is that the leaders seem to be talking past each other.

They are saying different things about the same agreement, in terms of national ambitions and interests. And this is generated by the fact that different political ideologies and national interests shape the ways leaders think about and represent their space programs. 

Human expansion into space in the 21st Century is decidedly not about “humanity” moving to the stars; it is about various humans and their governments moving beyond LEO. Even as we earnestly try to cooperate, we will bring differences of culture, policy, national interests, and collective ambitions with us into the Solar System.  

The space community must avoid the easy self-deception that human expansion into space will be necessarily characterized by human unification. Star Trek is a nice ambition, but the road ahead is much more likely to be not only distinguished by cooperation but marked by conflict as our diverse interests and ambitions converge.

J. W. Traphagan
Hyunjin Kim
December 5, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)