Like many, I believed all that was needed to boost the ailing US space program was a second space race akin to the Apollo days. Some have suggested China is the new competitor, but they have been going for a decade now and competition has not arose. I think I may have changed my mind of that subject recently.
The guest speaker at the 2014 Werhner von Braun Memorial dinner was the CEO of the European Space Agency (ESA), Jean-Jacques Dordain. He has had a very distinguishing career in space. He met both Wernher von Braun and Neil Armstrong when he was a young engineer. One of the things in his speech that resonated with me was the difference between competition and cooperation as drivers for progress and technology. Paraphrasing, he said “competition lasts until there is a winner, cooperation can last forever.”
US and Russia began the space race as competitors and it spurred one of the fastest growths in technology in the last century and allowed humanity to reach the moon in only 10 years. However right after Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, the competition was over. The space programs could have died right there. However the two superpowers began working together, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz Flight. The Apollo-Soyuz test project was signed into action by both countries in 1972. Up until then, both countries had been busy launching missions and putting out press releases about their respective accomplishments. Fast forward 40 years to today and the US and Russia work hand in hand in space exploration and on board the International Space Station. In fact, even during the US ban on interactions with Russia during the 2000’s, NASA was still allowed to interact with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to conduct flights to the ISS. Many of our rocket engines are Russian designs or bought directly from them (that’s a point of some contention in the political and industrial sectors). 15 countries currently participate in the ISS and conducting science on the orbiting science lab. Without those tenuous cooperative agreements between US and Russia/Soviet Union, our exploration of space and understanding of the universe may have suffered greatly in the last 40 years. So I no longer believe that a second space race is needed to revitalize the world’s space programs. No, I believe better national and international cooperation between governments, industries, and the public will push the final frontier faster than any competition ever could.