Since humanity’s first journey off the ground, advances in space exploration and aviation have been a fierce competition among nations on the international stage. Sanjoy Som writes in his article “An international symbol for the sustained exploration of space” published in the journal Space Policy that the future of space research and exploration will be an increasingly cooperative effort between nations, public enterprises, and private companies. Their joint efforts together are greater than the sum of their parts, he argues, pointing to the accomplishment of the International Space Station as evidence that international collaboration in space is a worthy effort.
Going into space is difficult and costly. All of our past space missions have taken many years to complete from laboratory to launch. As we set our eyes on missions that go further into space than we have before and collect even more sophisticated data, it will not be possible for a single country to do the work…or foot the bill. Som also reminds us that back in the 1950s space race, the United States spent 5.5% of its budget on NASA, where today it only spends 0.5%. There are practical reasons to avoid overspending in today’s economy, so nations will need to cooperate to push the boundaries of space exploration further.
Even before the International Space Station, however, space had demonstrated that it could be a valuable tool for inspiring cooperation between nations. In 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a cooperative project called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as an act of peace following the end of the Vietnam War. This began a long history of Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts working together. The Apollo-Soyuz mission cooled international tensions and also led to scientific and technical breakthroughs which motivated the participants to form another cooperative project called the Shuttle-Mir Program in 1993. We have this project to thank for the construction of the International Space Station.
Including private companies in space exploration efforts, rather than leaving it solely up to governments, may make it a less political endeavor. Advancing scientific knowledge and the understanding of our universe for commercial benefit can be strong motivating forces. Between 2007-2018, Google and the X Prize Foundation offered a $30 million prize for the first team to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon and complete certain objectives on the surface. The Google Lunar XPRIZE showed that friendly competition, rather than politics, could motivate people into innovation in space exploration as well. Despite the contest finishing with no team claiming the full prize, it still inspired entrants from all over the world to enter the earlier stages of competition and also fulfilled its goals of keeping the public excited about space. Som emphasizes that this public engagement is essential for the success of any space mission, especially since it is funded largely by taxpayers.
Som urges us to consider that space exploration impacts every citizen of Earth, reminding us that we share this planet. Space exploration has repeatedly transcended geographical, political, and other boundaries, so maybe it is now time for a symbol that represents this collaboration. He proposes that the ideal symbol to represent cooperation between countries in space exploration is the first image of the Earth taken from space by a human on December 7, 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17. Every human alive at that time was somewhere in that photo, or behind the camera! Consider it the first selfie, of all of us and the only home we’ve ever known.
Anyone living anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion, can relate to that image. Nations who plant a flag on the moon any other landing site would be able to include both their national flag and the Earth flag, feeling both national pride and pride on behalf of humanity’s many accomplishments.