Collaboration is the cornerstone of space exploration

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, launched in late July, carried instruments from several companies and is just one example of the importance of international collaboration in space exploration. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

When Neil Armstrong proclaimed that landing on the Moon was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the resonance of its message not only alluded to the incredible undertaking that a moon landing entailed, but it also ignited the human imagination and the spirit of invention for what could now be possible.

However, as unifying as moments like this were, they were often eclipsed by the intense Space Race during the Cold War as the United States and Russia found themselves competing against each other to innovate and dominate areas of space technologies.

Since then, cooperation in the global space race has progressed. The International Space Station (ISS) has now operated for more than two decades, hosted 236 individuals from 18 countries, including the United States and Russia, who work together on research projects with 93 countries. In fact, for years, the Russians have for years provided the only way to transport American astronauts to the ISS, despite highly politicized relations between the two countries that have spanned multiple US administrations.

In the modern era, however, threats to militarize space remain prominent, especially as the political makeup of countries shift and new private enterprises enter the NewSpace sector. It’s crucial that we navigate a world with limited legislation and policy surrounding activities in space.

It is my belief that if we are to remain focused on getting back to the Moon and ultimately on to Mars, the industry must rely on collaborative efforts from governments, private businesses, and partnerships as the cornerstone to support these colossal projects. An important step in this direction are the Artemis Accords, announced on May 15.

Cooperation to explore the cosmos

The idea of reaching Mars has enticed the world since the 1920s. NASA’s goal to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s will possibly stand as the unifying space project of our current era.

In 2020 alone, several missions launched to Mars. NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover expedition has launched and will collect samples for later return to Earth as well as other data to support future expeditions to the Red Planet. China’s Tianwen-1 probe launched successfully in late July 2020 and will be the country’s first independent trip to Mars. Additionally, the Emirates Mars Mission, Hope, launched the first Arab mission in July. In 2022, the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos will launch ExoMars, which will search for signs of life on Mars.

Exploring and ultimately settling Mars is a critical priority for many scientific reasons, including that may answer the age-old question of whether there’s life beyond Earth. That’s something that should be done together. Ellen Stofan, NASA’s former Chief Scientist, says, “When we go to explore, we do it as a globe… people see space as a place where you go and cooperate.”

The International Space Station is a prime example of how collaboration assists research projects, exploring ways for humans to travel to Mars and back. Today, research is in the works to mitigate bone density loss, muscle wasting, and changes in the cardiovascular system due to the impacts of the microgravity environment. The research will help humans arrive on Mars after a months-long journey physically healthy and able to react to possible emergencies.

Partnerships are the foundation of exploration and success

Partnerships have always been the bedrock of success in space. The first “flag” installed on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission was a solar wind experiment from Switzerland. Mars Perseverance is another an example of this collaboration. Built in the United States, the rover studies rock chemistry with instruments provided by the French, measurement tools for the wind developed by Spain, and tools that measure the subsurface with sounders from Finland. This type of collaboration is fairly typical for space missions, composed of scientists and technologies from countries across the world.

Trans-border partnerships and investments are expected to continue thriving. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group, it brings together space agencies like NASA, France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, among other numerous space agencies, develops roadmaps for future exploration that include the International Space Station and expeditions to the Moon, leading up to Mars. While some of these agencies are more focused on exploring either Mars or the Moon, they all concur that a single agency isn’t capable of undertaking the task alone.

While it’s evident that the next stage of space exploration will be more global, it will also involve greater opportunities for private and public partnerships. Companies, including Boeing and SpaceX, are increasingly involved in NASA’s projects. The agency is expected to offer an increasing number of awards to support to the private sector. Since national funding has decreased for NASA—they receive less than half a percent of overall federal spending—they’ll need to rely more on cooperation from private companies and shareholders to increase their chances of innovation and success in their missions.

Guarding the planet, and going to the stars

Traveling to Mars doesn’t mean we can leave behind the myriad of problems we face on our home planet. Through a collaborative space effort, we can observe our planet from above through closely coordinated efforts. The Group on Earth Observations and the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites host forums for space agencies and organizations from across the globe. They coordinate observations, discuss open data policies, jointly calibrate instruments, and share and validate data. These coordinated efforts are more critical than ever because they can help scientists predict changing patterns of growing food, and sea level rise, as we deal with the pressures of climate change.

There are also more immediate advantages to the observation of the Earth from space, particularly for natural disasters. From humanitarian crises and natural disasters, space agencies use satellites, under the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, to help scientists prioritize satellite data to help with rescue and recovery efforts on Earth.

The future of the space industry is one of international collaboration. Highly integrated partnerships are expanding our knowledge of the universe. Technological and scientific innovations are not restricted to one nation. The more collaboration we bring together to solve complex problems for all of humanity’s sake, the better our collective chances are to thrive in the final frontier.


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