At last week's meeting in Washington, the main event of the International Space Year, more than 3,000 delegates - scientists, engineers, programme managers and educators - came together to renounce destructive competition and initiate an era of worldwide co-operation in the use and exploration of space.
Speaking at the inaugural ceremony, Vice-President Dan Quayle, head of the US National Space Council, promised that top priority would be given by the Bush administration to the creation of a global coalition for the peaceful exploration of space.
Mr Quayle, Daniel Goldin, the Nasa administrator, and the leaders of the Russian delegation all announced plans for joint manned space flights which 'would improve both our programmes'. These include a flight by a Russian on the US shuttle in October 1993, a three-month trip by an American on the Mir space station, and docking the shuttle to Mir in 1994 or 1995. Similar negotiations are under way between Russia, Europe and Japan.
Looking further ahead, representatives of both space powers spoke of travelling together to Mars, although under President Bush's Space Exploration Initiative there is at present no provision for international partners.
Of more immediate value to Earth's five billion people was the determination to apply space technology to environmental problems. Some research projects are already under way, including the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and the World Climate Programme. As Mr Goldin reminded the delegates: 'We are all crew members on a spaceship called Earth. Mission to planet Earth is more than a responsibility - it's a duty, and a moral commitment to future generations. We don't inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.'
Beyond the rhetoric, there are serious practical reasons for this sudden rapprochement. One of the main driving forces is shortage of money. With many developed nations suffering from recession, the funds available for space research are under threat and major programmes are being scaled down or cancelled. These include not only the highly expensive manned space missions, but also complex space science missions such as Nasa's Cassini Mission to Saturn, an advanced X-ray observatory, and a comet rendezvous and fly-by mission.
One of the most notable trends to come out of the paucity of funds is the drive to build smaller, faster, cheaper spacecraft. Mr Goldin threw out this challenge: 'Let's see how many we can build that weigh hundreds, not thousands of pounds; that use cutting- edge technology, not 10-year-old technology that plays it safe; that cost tens of millions, not hundreds of millions and billions; and take months and years, not decades, to build and arrive at their destination.'
Inevitably, there will be problems as well as advantages associated with such radical changes to the status quo. One is the problem of when to share and when to put up the shutters. In a commercial marketplace, companies are unlikely to hand over freely the secrets of their latest technological breakthrough to a foreign competitor. There will always be an element of competition between scientific researchers around the world. As one delegate from the European Space Agency, Gordon Bolton, commented: 'It is no good getting into bed with someone if you're not going to get anything out of it.'
Mr Bolton went on to list other problems which could arise in the new order. These include communication and language differences, leading to misunderstandings and inefficiency. Differing standards on either side have to be reconciled somehow. International agreements can be and have been unilaterally broken, for example, when the United States pulled out of a joint mission with Europe to study the polar regions of the sun. Also, there may be more administration, as each country sets up its own bureaucracy to organise the co-operative efforts, leading to duplication and an increase in some costs, partially offsetting cost-sharing in other areas.
Albert Galeev, director of the Russian Space Research Institute, suggested that far from reducing world tension, co-operation could lead to mistrust and mutual recriminations. The failure of the Russian-led international missions in 1988 to Phobos, the larger of the two satellites of Mars, caused tensions in the scientific community both inside and outside Russia.
Despite these drawbacks, international co-operation in space is here to stay. Lobbying for the creation of a world space organisation already has begun. As Mr Goldin says: 'The international co-operation necessary to explore the Earth, explore the Moon and send humans to Mars can inspire the people of the entire planet to see what can be accomplished if we replace our habits of confrontation with co-operation.'Reuse content