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The State of Affairs in Space Exploration

Lovers who reside in New York City have plenty of options to spend time together, but laying in the grass of Central Park to admire the sky doesn’t sound like an interesting idea. There’s almost nothing to be seeing, for the sky is “shadowed” by city lights. Geeky lovers will disagree, though: on certain days, the International Space Station is visible to the naked eye.

One is reluctant in ranking the ISS as the most astounding of the engineering achievements to date, in view of the Apollo Program, or the cinematographic landing of a car-sized robot in the surface of Mars, for instance. But once we consider the non-technical aspects involved, the orbiting microgravity lab stands incomparable, for it’s the product of a collaborative effort between nations, an approach to nature exploration and scientific pursuit that nurtures hope in the future of our species.

Yet, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are treating space adventures with the proper level of maturity. Nationalist and military arguments still prevail as driving forces in the development of the required technologies, and to see that we don’t need to go further than mentioning the high level of propaganda surrounding the recent rocket launches by Iran and the North Korea, and how western politicians reacted with fear that those countries are actually aiming to develop ballistic missiles. (Not surprisingly, those fears weren’t mentioned when South Korea conducted its own satellite launch, shortly after their enemy to the north.)

It can be argued that this is not a per-country competition, but instead a race between the West and the East, reflecting the current bi-polarization of the globe, in a way similar to what happened during the Cold War. There’s, in fact, some evidence for that: besides the ISS example, the U.S. currently relies on russian rockets to get their astronauts to space, and NASA’s next-generation spacecraft will have a service module built by the European Space Agency.

Nevertheless, such collaboration is not seen among non-western countries: there’s no obvious alignment between Iran and North Korea, for instance, and China wants to be self-sufficient as well, even though they started out with help from Russia. Besides, there’s high competition among western countries, including private companies such as SpaceX, in the high-profile market of satellite launching. In addition, Russia, Europe, China, and India are working to have their own constellation of satellites for location purposes, aiming independence from the GPS system, which is maintained by the U.S.

With a few exceptions, the state of affairs in space exploration still resembles the first-come-first-served mentality of the Age of Discovery. Although that’s nothing but expected by anyone who’s old enough to have lost naivety about the human nature, maybe we should pay more attention to the consequences of a greedy hunt for resources here on our fragile planet. Does every country need it’s own GPS system? Should private companies be entitled to mine asteroids? Should nations with developed and tested space technologies deny sharing it with peaceful, developing countries, and let them prone to mistakes that can cost lives?

Countries whose authorities see rockets mostly as ads for nationalist pride notwithstanding, at least the developed democratic nations should invest in less provincial and more collaborative approaches, now that their own phase of selfish, exhibitionist muscle-flexing, is in the past.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)