Applying lessons from Apollo for a smart space agenda at a time of increased international tension

NASA could use the Deep Space Gateway as a stepping stone to missions to the lunar surface and beyond through international partnerships, building upon ISS cooperation. (credit: NASA)

More than 48 years after the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon we can celebrate the greatest triumph of the Moon Race during the Cold War: the fact that we are still here. The most important result of all the heroism and all the treasure expended during Apollo was that it was a successful strategy to avoid the cataclysm of nuclear war in the competition between the US and the Soviet Union.

The Apollo program was a means of stepping away from the potential flash points of the Cold War, like the Cuban Missile Crisis. An often-overlooked sentence of President Kennedy’s September 12, 1962, speech at Rice University is the following:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?”

Just 40 days later, on October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the country regarding the blockage of Soviet ships to Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis began. We remember the triumph of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon July 20, 1969, but don’t remember the beginning of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Finland in November 1969.

Our motives to go to the Moon from the beginning were framed in the context of an alternative to “strife, prejudice, and national conflict” via its opportunity for peaceful cooperation. The US and Soviet Union stepped back from nuclear confrontation by reciprocal withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Turkey and Cuba respectively. The Soviets also responded to Kennedy throwing down the gauntlet of the Apollo Program by engaging in the Moon race.

This provided an alternative to the high-stakes military competition with a prestigious high-stakes civilian competition that was also technical and economic, and provided a soft path to power as an international political strategy. The aftermath of the six successful Apollo missions and three Soviet robotic sample return missions was the pragmatic symbolism of the collaborative Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

Peaceful collaboration for the post-Apollo era

A Space Cooperation Agreement was signed in 1987 shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 but was renewed in 1992 by the US and Russia. In February 1994 the first Russian cosmonaut to flew on the Space Shuttle, followed by the Shuttle-Mir missions. Now with almost 20 years of the International Space Station we have a tendency to forget that the first space station visited by the shuttle was Russian because there was no where else to go.

This trajectory of peaceful collaboration provided a foundation for the International Space Station collaboration, which has successfully engaged most of the enemy combatants nations that faced off on opposite sides during World War II. Perhaps that diplomatic achievement transcends the technical achievement of building the largest human-occupied satellite in history.

At a time of much heightened international tensions between the US and Russia in Ukraine and Syria, between the US and its allies and China in the East and South China Seas, and with the US and a new missile crisis with China’s ally North Korea, there is an opportunity to benefit again from the heritage of lessons from the Apollo era that can be applied to day.

First, we can better align future US plans with those of our competitors to provide common horizons and shared frontiers. An affirmation of shared future aspirations, collaborations, and investment is a beginning step to reduce and defuse tensions. One way to do this is to extend international space collaboration that the ISS Treaty and Station represent to lunar orbit and the lunar surface.

NASA is currently planning a Deep Space Gateway facility that will operate in cislunar space, perhaps in orbit around the Moon. With the collaboration of both international and commercial partners that want to return to the Moon, the Gateway can be better symbolically aligned as a Lunar and Mars Gateway Station. This facility can strengthen its function as a pathway back to the Moon with significant international and commercial additions (as a US-led beginning initiative) as an expanded model of participation. It can also signal longer-term common commitments to the frontier that is Mars.

There are many incremental options and opportunities for both international and commercial collaboration down this path. NASA has indicated that the Russians are considering the addition to the Gateway of a facility for EVA missions in 2025 after the initial three US elements are emplaced. Bigelow Aerospace has also shown interest in the deployment of its B330 modules on space stations and on the lunar surface. There is also the potential for the additional of a fuel depot, laboratories, and additional docking facilities.

The successful commercial cargo and crew public private partnership programs providing a redundant supply chain to the ISS can be the model supporting a redundant supply chain to a Moon/Mars Gateway station and later a permanent Moon Base. Blue Origin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance are among the US companies that could provide lower cost space access with most either using or developing reusable launchers or spacecraft. International partners can also follow the precedent of the ISS Treaty with shared construction contributions, supply chain commitments, utilization commitments, and an operational management partnership.

However, an enhanced Moon Mars-Gateway is only an intermediate goal. The National Space Society has advocated a voluntary collaboration of spacefaring nations be organized to create an International Lunar Decade (ILD) supporting development of a human permanent presence on the Moon. The historical success of the voluntary International Geophysical Year 1957–58 attracted the peaceful participation of over 60 countries prior to Apollo, and has resulted in many established Antarctic science bases. This could bring more international resources to the table with a larger number of nations participating than just the ISS partners.

All eight G20 nations not now in the voluntary International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) might be invited to participate and contribute. Other countries with an interest and resources enabling participation beyond the G20 should also be invited. An ILD campaign would dramatically “Return in Peace With All Mankind.” to the Moon and this time to stay together.

The Astronaut Rescue and Return Treaty signed in 1968 and given operational life by the demonstrated success of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, shuttle visits to Mir, and the International supply chain to the ISS can be the model to move us forward again. The Chinese are shortly to begin construction of their own space station in LEO. When this Chinese station is operational, there will be the potential for reciprocal astronaut rescue and return missions as a way of fulfilling the treaty to which both the US and China are signatories.

This is one way that an Apollo-Soyuz type scenario can initiate constructive collaboration with the Chinese space program. Should the Russians separate their ISS modules and create a separate station a similar proposition should apply and this also extends the success of the ISS collaboration with the Russians.

A Moon-Mars Gateway station is another way to extend fulfillment of the Astronaut Rescue and Return Treaty with the Chinese program as they extend their heavy-lift vehicle and deep space operational capabilities. The same legal mechanism can also extend to the lunar surface when that option is created.

What has not been determined are the rescue obligations that would apply to nations under the treaty to commercial astronauts, or the financial obligations of commercial operators to compensate nations for such services via insurance or bonding mechanisms typical of existing commercial financial tools for risk reduction. These options can extend humanitarian obligations into the organizational fabric of space commerce as well.

Another collaborative opportunity exists with the opportunity to create a cislunar communications architecture that will enable the many nations planning lunar orbiters to provide a redundant communications system that is delay and disruption tolerant. Certain communications elements are already being planned by various national space agencies and companies that could be combined through development of an international inter-operability standard and an international public private partnership framework.

Such approaches could also be used later for navigation systems, power generation and transmission through power-beaming satellites, and eventual space solar power systems. This is another Apollo-style peaceful multi-win opportunity for the nation’s space program, economy, and position of leadership!

The current Congress and administration seems open to also advance the legal framework for commercial provision of these services and facilities under the regulatory authority of US government under the Outer Space Treaty. Similarly, the financial infrastructure for development of these global opportunities must also support transparent and regulated international investments by providing protections for both domestic and foreign capital investment.


At a time of increased international tension and threats of military action, the US National Space Council can promote a national space policy that can promote a variety of opportunities for a peaceful path forward that adds to national capabilities and national wealth and that also provides many multi-win international and commercial opportunities. An International Lunar Decade campaign can encourage expanded international participation and increased resources devoted to opening new, shared frontiers and economic space investment options. The provision the resources available in space to meet the requirements of sustainable development on Earth will be enabled by free people and markets. The legal framework must include those included in the Declaration of Human Rights.

Our Apollo program lessons have shown us that encouraging and aligning our national space program to share common horizons and frontiers with the larger community of spacefaring nations is a winning strategy. These options can provide a peaceful path to the use of space resources for the global market as we extend human presence in space. This path is consistent with the historic success of the Apollo program in preserving global peace, projecting global goodwill, and providing increased economic growth and other social and educational benefits.