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Cooperation vs. competition in space

by Rowan Hooper

Shadows of winter clouds

Run over the ocean

Just before sunset

It’s a pretty haiku, but it becomes quite extraordinary when you learn that it was written aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by astronaut Koichi Wakata, who tweeted it to his 50,000 followers on Jan. 9. That’s the same Wakata, of course, who spoke with his companion Kirobo on the ISS in December last year in what was the first human-robot interaction in space.

In 2000, Saitama-born Wakata — whose Twitter alias is @Astro_Wakata — flew on the 100th mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle, and was the first Japanese to help build the ISS. Perhaps less notably, he revealed on returning from a monthlong Shuttle mission in 2009, he wore the same underpants the entire time. To be fair, they were a high-tech pair designed for long-term use.

Right now, the extraterrestrial celebrity is nearly halfway through a six-month stay at the ISS as its first Japanese commanding officer. No doubt he welcomed the U.S. announcement last week that it intends to extend the life of the ISS until 2024. It’s an expensive commitment — costing NASA $3 billion a year — and the Americans are hoping other countries will pitch in.

Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura said Japan — which, with the European Space Agency and Canada, is a major supporter of ISS funding — should positively consider the U.S. proposal. If the life of the ISS is not extended past its current end date of 2020, then in six years time it will be “de-orbited” and allowed to crash into the South Pacific.

By most measures, the Americans don’t want that to happen. Quite apart from the scientific and engineering work conducted on the ISS, there is national pride. Or, put another way: If the U.S. winds down the ISS, the Chinese will take control of space.

Some U.S. politicians view this as a national-security issue. That was one reason the U.S. blocked China’s initial approaches to join the ISS project: It feared it would improve China’s ability to develop space weapons. Tokyo may also prefer to continue supporting the U.S. effort in order to stop China making the running.

But it’s only a matter of time — and Beijing is arguably already making the running. Last month it landed a rover on the moon — the first such “soft” landing there for 40 years. And the Chinese want to establish a space station by 2020.

All astronauts speak in similar ways about how it made them feel to look down on Earth from space. They talk of a new and profound understanding of the fragile beauty of our planet, and of the need for different nations and religions to work together for the greater good.

Canadian Chris Hadfield, who also commanded the ISS and has spent 166 days off-planet, said being in space “helps you recognize the unanimity of our existence.”

Grimy politics usually gets in the way of such ideals. In 2011, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting NASA from, among other things, hosting Chinese astronauts and scientists at its facilities. But there are signs that relations are thawing.

On Jan. 11, Xu Dazhe, the new boss of China’s national space agency, said he wants to encourage international cooperation in space. And a few days earlier, at an International Space Exploration Forum at the U.S. State Department, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns expressed hope that the countries could work together.

“The question is whether we can muster the courage and political will to advance space exploration and ensure cooperation continues to trump competition,” he said.

As a strong Chinese presence off-planet looks certain, it makes sense to cooperate — and for inspiration we need look no further than at Ants in Space, an experiment that has just been delivered to the ISS by a rocket, Cygnus, operated by private company Orbital Sciences. It aims to research how ants — which in nature have no master plan or commanding officer — cooperate to explore new territories and work together to forage and build a nest.

Entomologist Deborah Gordon of Stanford University in California has designed an experiment involving a capsule of worker ants delivered by the Cygnus craft that school students worldwide can take part in. The ants will be allowed to forage in special arenas on the ISS and schoolkids will be able to see how they operate in micro- gravity and test theories about the deceptively simple rules ants use to work together.

Sounds like a promising metaphor for space cooperation among nations. Just beware one thing: The ant species being used is the Pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum), a nasty and invasive pest.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine.