A Short History of American Space Diplomacy

The United States has played a leading role in space research and technology since the beginning, with and through international partnerships.  Space diplomacy persists as a valuable tool for American leaders, regardless of their ideology.

Dozens have left the security of Earth’s envelope to piece together a place outside anywhere they had the right to be, with their air-needing lungs and helpless lack of propulsion.  They came and went, up and down, for the sake of learning something.

Five space agencies built and operate the International Space Station.  President Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address gave NASA 10 years to “develop a permanently manned space station…[and] invite other countries [to] strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom…” with those who shared American goals.  In 1988, the United States signed Space Station agreements with Canada, Europe, and Japan.  Ten years later, the Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation was signed by representatives of 15 countries, now including Russia, which has been America’s most important partner in the project.

The space station is a uniquely grand example of space diplomacy, the forging of international bonds through peaceful space science.  The Cold War witnessed the first steps towards space diplomacy, rooted in a long history of scientific, military, and technological diplomacy.  The Soviet Union was famously involved with its’ allies scientific and military affairs, and Russia continues to sponsor a range of space initiatives in foreign countries.  China has also been a sponsor of foreign space science, building a space tracking base in Argentina. (Lee 2016)

American space diplomacy began simultaneously with its domestic space program.  The space station represents one of our most global efforts at statecraft with spacecraft, but it isn’t the first or last.  NASA in the World claims that NASA been part of more than 4,000 international space agreements over its history. (J. Krige 2013)  In space science, American efforts have been truly global.

Space Diplomacy

The International Geophysical Year, “a multinational effort to study Earth on a comprehensive, coordinated basis,” began in July 1957. (Sagdeev and Eisenhower 2008) 67 nations participated; two launched the first human-made satellites into space.  In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into existence and wrote to Chairman Bulganin of the USSR to advocate for the “new idea” of “outer space [being] perpetually dedicated to peaceful purposes,” supported by “cooperative international procedures.” (Eisenhower 1958)  That year, the United States and Canada began satellite cooperation to improve communications and the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was established.

Early cooperation in space made sense on several levels.  First, it brought greater attention to the national chest pumping feats of academic and scientific success.  Second, it helped mitigate the risk of global war by keeping the lines of communication open between the US and USSR and using international governance structures to strengthen those ties.  In contrast to nuclear power, because of decades of space diplomacy, space science has remained cooperative and peaceful.

John Glenn’s successful Friendship 7 orbit represented not only new heights for the American program, but the conviction to maintain international friendliness and peace in space even amid a heating Cold War and galloping space race.  During the vessel’s 1962 world tour, people around the world come out to see a defunct metal pod, and showed how space programs really represented giant leaps for all of mankind.

During the year, both Soviet and American leadership declared that cooperation in space could be the path to mutual understanding and the solution to technical problems.  The Dryden-Blagonravov conversations lead to US-USSR cooperation on several space projects and demonstrated the role of academics in modern diplomacy.  Scientists across the world were using American designs to further their national space programs.  In the 60s, Frenchmen were in Maryland learning how to build their own satellite, leading to cooperation on experimental satellite Eole; American satellites were carrying Canadian equipment into space for radio communication projects; and in 1970 Japan launched a rocket program based on US technology.  The United Nations treaty on the exploration of outer space, legally declaring space open to all states, for the benefit of all people, was considered and signed in 1967.

By this point, space exploration had captured the hearts and minds of the American people.  As many as 600 million people watched the American moon landing.  The Guardians of the Galaxy first appeared in issue #18 of Marvel Super-Heroes, released January 1969.  Martin Caidin’s 1964 novel and the 1969 motion picture based on it, Marooned, depicts American astronauts in need of Soviet rescue in space.  In July 1975, elements of the fiction came true as the American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz craft docked together, resulting in the first American-Soviet space handshake and a ISS preview.

1970s and 80s NASA and its partners made great strides into space and in space technology, setting the stage for many successful collaborative efforts into the 21st century.

Together the United States and the Soviet Union mapped the moon, discussed their missions, and tested their lunar samples.  This cooperation, including the momentous 1972 Moscow summit, culminated in the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The Soviet Union carried American and European experiment packages on its satellites and American flights brought up Canadian satellites. The Canadian Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, Canadarm, was designed and installed on American Space Shuttles to be used in more than 90 missions from 1981-2011.

In 1973, a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the European Space Agency, representing 10 countries, gave birth to the Spacelab program, a “versatile laboratory carried in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay for special research flights.” (Astronauts Working in Spacelab 1999)  Between 1983 and 1998, 22 Spacelab missions were flown.

The Cospas-Sarsat program was the marriage of the Soviet and the American-Canadian projects, built on the foundation of American-Canadian communications and the American-French Argos cooperation. The 1988 international agreement opened the satellite distress system to rescue teams across the world, and today ties together a total of 43 participating countries and organizations on every continent.

In 1983, the American-British-Dutch Infrared Astronomical Satellite began a 10-month mission to observe the sky in infrared, leading to later American observatory projects.

17 countries, and 33 American states, have contributed to the Cassini mission to Saturn, which is scheduled for its final phase September 2017 after almost 20 years.  The three contributing space agencies, NASA, ESA, and the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, developed different parts of the project and continue to make their discoveries available to the public.

In 1984, President Reagan ordered the development of a space station, which grew into today’s impressive international project.  The President signed S.J.Res. 236 in October: “a joint resolution relating to cooperative East-West ventures in space as an alternative to a space arms race,” legalizing a bipartisan American preference for peaceful cooperation to war.  This preference later resulted in a 1987 agreement with the Soviet Union and cooperation on the American Magellan expedition to Venus.  The US also supported Russian efforts to study Halley’s comet during its 1986 orbit.  The fall of the Soviet Union ended efforts to work together on other planetary projects, but a 1992 agreement allowing the US to use the Russian space station Mir demonstrated those nations’ ongoing commitment to collaborative space science, especially manned space missions like the Space Station.

In the 1990s, the United States developed massive national projects which benefited from foreign partners.  The Compton Gamma Ray observatory was launched in 1991, carrying advanced equipment “dedicated to observing the high-energy universe,” accessible to scientists around the world. (Appendix G to the NASA Research Announcement for the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory n.d.)  Four contributing institutions, including the German Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the Dutch Laboratory for Space Research, and the Space Science Department of ESA/ESTEC, hosted guest investigations and developed COMPETL, the observatory’s Imaging Compton Telescope.

Similarly, the Hubble Telescope was designed for international cooperative study.  The American Large Space Telescope program was born in the 1960s.  With ESA contributions and their continuing operational support, the telescope as we know it today was launched in 1990.  Its archive contains more than 120 terabytes of data for which more than 11,000 scientific papers can thank their existence.  The universal accessibility of Hubble images, drawing together professional and amateur scientists of all ages from all over the world, does as much to help explain deep space as to demonstrate our global, borderless humanity, like Armstrong’s leap and the Apollo-Soyuz handshake did before them.  Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is another collaboration with ESA as well as the Canadian Space Agency.  Development began in 1996, construction started in 2004, and it is scheduled to launch in 2018 from French Guiana.

The 2000s and early 2010s were dominated by large, ongoing collaborative projects.  Additionally, the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 has left American astronauts dependent on Russian launches to reach space and condemned the Hubble Telescope with the end of maintenance flights. However, during its lifetime the program was vital for both the initial launch and the maintenance of the Space Station and the Hubble telescope.  The Shuttles put 852 fliers from 16 countries into Earth’s orbit for a total of over 1,334 days, docked with Mir 9 times, and docked with ISS 37 times.  During this period, nations across the world collaborated, and agreed to continue collaborating, on peaceful space exploration. Agencies representing 21 countries attended NASA’s 2005 International Workshop on Exploratory Science.  The 2007 Global Exploration Strategy Framework outlined the long term exploratory goals and coordination strategy of 14 space agencies, from four of the six inhabited continents.

The United States has not stopped hosting these projects and discussions.  In 2018, the United States is due to host the 42nd bi-annual General Assembly of the International Council for Science’s Committee on Space Research, an organization founded on the commitment to promote international scientific space research.  The same year, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched, bringing the largest infrared observatory into space, available to scientists around the world.  Similarly, there has been some discussion of an American-Russian replacement for ISS, potentially open to broader global cooperation.

A hearing and a bill indicate Congress’ thoughts on the future of ISS and NASA.  On March 22nd, the House Science subcommittee on Space held a hearing on the future of the station.  Members’ discussed using station projects to get Americans further into space and compete with other nation’s efforts, as well as the role of the private market in the industry.  Additionally, the President just signed S. 442.  The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 reaffirms NASA’s commitment to using and operating the space station, looks forward to cooperation with other nations on future Mars missions, and orders the agency to develop a plan to transition from sponsor to customer of human space flight.

Some visions of the future of space exploration, and cooperation, are grand.  S. 442 demonstrates Congress’ interest in deep space exploration.  The Global Exploration Strategy Framework focuses on projects around the solar system, “[to] destinations…where we may one day live and work,” highlighting the Moon and Mars as prime targets.  In November 2015, NASA’s Charles Bolden promised a manned mission to Mars by midcentury and the need for international cooperation to do it.  Space cooperation and diplomacy, he said, “go together like peanut butter and jelly.”  A proposed mission to Venus, Venera-D, could be the first example of major American-Russian cooperation on a space project during the Trump administration, although the actual launch is planned for 2025.

President Donald Trump’s nationalist, defense focused agenda may shift space programs away from international projects to, for example, missile defense systems as mentioned during his campaign.  Both the nationalist disposition and the focus on missile defense were true of Ronald Reagan, the same president who demanded the space station and whose administration oversaw many multinational space projects mid-Cold War.

President Trump’s recent budget outline focuses on public-private partnerships and exploring the solar system, and the recent hearing demonstrates his party members’ shared view of NASA as an exploratory agency, continually exploring new frontiers.  The outline specifically mentions missions to Mars and Jupiter and Orion vehicle development.   It seems that both President Trump and his party’s legislative members envisions NASA playing a role in securing American primacy and supremacy, technologically and economically, alongside international and private partners.

Thoughts on the Future of Space Diplomacy

Over the decades, successive American administrations formed continuous international partnerships in space projects, despite and sometimes because of conflict with those same partners.  Space diplomacy strengthened ties with allies and kept dialogue open with enemies.  It spurred a competitive spirit.  It allowed us to share information and tools to make the world safer.  It launched us and our technology further than we could have gone alone.  And it kept space a peaceful place, low hanging heights for cooperation.

No societal endeavor is outside the reach of diplomatic interference.  Anything done by humans can be leveraged for national gain.  Space diplomacy is unique in that it has tied more interests together peacefully than have ever been tied in war.  While attempts have been made, and will continue to be made, to militarize space, the fact remains that there are two truly international clubhouses for humans in our universe: Antarctica and space.  Perhaps while we can keep both inhospitable, we can have peace there.

Space science remains impressive and universal, making it that much more valuable as a diplomatic tool.  Organizations like the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in the UN and Committee on Space Science in the International Council for Science preserve the peaceful, global spirit of space science with and apart from national efforts.  Projects like the Hubble Telescope make their beautiful images and massive data caches available to the public, whetting the appetites of citizen scientists and connecting every nation’s success to the global feeling of human accomplishment.  Extensive cooperative precedent translates into low resistance diplomatic channels and ongoing opportunities to work together, but nations may not always dominate the conversation.

Going forward, there will likely be a growing role for private enterprise in space.  As demonstrated by Lockheed Martin’s contributions to the Cassini project, for example, private contractors have had a major impact on American space projects.  Corporations like Boeing and SpaceX have been working closely with NASA and help control costs.  These corporation’s growing independence and ability to both widely market their projects and safely absorb risk have allowed them to become ever more important in the development of space science and technology.  Where once only nations had the ability to trade high tech tools and their best scientific minds- make space diplomacy- now independent organizations could do the same.  This could mean the democratization and economic liberalization of what could be a thriving industry.  Or a risk to national security.

Similarly, the availability of both the data and processing tools which were once only available to massive, expensive, and often secret national agencies are now within the reach of the average citizen.  A child can release a weather balloon high into the atmosphere, recording picture perfect video on a smart phone thousands of feet above them.  That video can be instantly shared, even live streamed, to the entire world.  Someday they may hire a company to take them on a similar balloon to see it themselves.  Imagine a world where space technology was as common at science fairs as clay volcanoes.


Neither our space program nor our foreign policy would be the same today without these effective and global experiments in space diplomacy.  The projects played a major role in Cold War peace and survival.  The largest and most impressive programs would not have been possible without international partners.  In recent years, there wouldn’t have even been Americans in space without foreign and private assistance.  Space diplomacy also reflected and shaped the national character.

American cooperativeness and openness molded space technology and science into what we are familiar with today.  Not only was immense progress made in the interests of both the nation and all human kind, but the American tradition of private partnerships and sharing progress has opened the door for more accessible, affordable science.

This article’s intent was to demonstrate a long, successful history of space diplomacy, and not necessarily to put forward an argument on its continuation or to encourage ongoing peace there.  However, given the narrative in its simplest form, the benefits seem clear, the risks few.  And it’s hard to hold back hope that we will go forward in peace and truly supranational cooperation for human advancement.


Works Cited

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Eisenhower, Dwight D. 1958. “31 – Letter to Nikolai Bulganin, Chairman, Council of Ministers, U. S. S. R.” The American Presidency Project. February 17. Accessed March 2017. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=11285.

  1. Krige, A. Long, Ashok Maharaj, Angelina Long Callahan. 2013. NASA in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. https://books.google.com/books?id=OfDQAQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=snippet&q=4%2C000&f=false.

Lee, Victor Robert. 2016. “China Builds Space-Monitoring Base in the Americas.” The Diplomat. May 24. Accessed March 2017. http://thediplomat.com/2016/05/china-builds-space-monitoring-base-in-the-americas/.

Mathews, Melissa, and Michael Braukus. 2007. “NASA, 13 Space Agencies Release Exploration Strategy Framework.” NASA.gov. May 31. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2007/may/HQ_07126_Exploration_Framework.html.

Poladian, Charles. 2015. “The Future Of Space Policy Is Built On International Cooperation: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.” International Business Times. November 16. Accessed March 2017. http://www.ibtimes.com/future-space-policy-built-international-cooperation-nasa-administrator-charles-bolden-2186627.

Sagdeev, Roald, and Susan Eisenhower. 2008. “United States-Soviet Space Cooperation during the Cold War.” NASA.gov. May 20. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/coldWarCoOp.html.

Further Reading

  1. “1990s: International Flair and Understanding the Solar System.” NASA: Kennedy Space Center. June 29. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/history/timeline/90s-decade.html.

Davis, Phillips, ed. n.d. “About the Mission.” NASA Cassini: Mission to Saturn. Cassini Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. Accessed March 2017. https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/about-the-mission/quick-facts/.

  1. “All Bill Information (Except Text) for S.442 – National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.” Congress.gov. Accessed March 2017. https://www.congress.gov/bill/98th-congress/senate-joint-resolution/236/all-info.
  2. “All Bill Information (Except Text) for S.J.Res.236 – A joint resolution relating to cooperative East-West ventures in space as an alternative to a space arms race.” Congress.gov. Accessed March 2017. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/442/all-info?r=3.

Ball, George W. 1962. “392. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Ball) to President Kennedy.” Department of State Office of the Historian. July 5. Accessed March 2017. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v25/d392.

Wilson, Jim, ed. 2015. “Cassini Team.” NASA.gov. September 15. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/team/index.html.

n.d. “COPUOS History.” United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Accessed March 2017. http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/copuos/history.html.

n.d. “COSPAR 2018.” Committee on Space Research. Accessed March 2017. https://cosparhq.cnes.fr/content/cospar-2018.

Davis, Phillip O., and William G. Holder. 2003. “Keynote of the 1970s: Joint Ventures into Space.” Air University Review. October 22. Accessed March 2017. http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/airchronicles/aureview/1973/sep-oct/davis.html.

Dick, Steven J. 2005. “Why We Explore.” NASA.gov. May 02. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_10.html.

Donnelly, John M. 2016. “Under Trump, GOP to Give Space Weapons Close Look.” Roll Call. November 21. Accessed March 2017. http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/trump-gop-give-space-weapons-close-look.

Foust, Jeff. 2015. “NASA Says No Plans for ISS Replacement with Russia.” Space News. March 28. Accessed March 2017. http://spacenews.com/nasa-says-no-plans-for-iss-replacement-with-russia/.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. 2017. “Space Subcommittee Hearing- The ISS after 2024: Options and Impacts.” science.house.gov. March. Accessed March 2017. https://science.house.gov/legislation/hearings/space-subcommittee-hearing-iss-after-2024-options-and-impacts.

IAF / IAA / IISL Advisory Committee on History Activities. 2016. “The History and the Experience of the International Cospas-Sarat Programme for Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue.” Edited by Study Manager Daniel Levesque. July 30. Accessed March 2017. http://www.iafastro.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Cospas-Sarsat-Report-1.pdf.

Lord, Douglas R. 1987. “Spacelab: An International Success Story.” NASA Scientific and Technical Information Division. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19880009991.pdf.

n.d. “Mission to Universe: Infrared Astronomical Satellite.” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. Accessed March 2017. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/infrared-astronomical-satellite-iras/.

Muir-Harmony, Teasel. 2012. “Friendship 7’s ‘Fourth Orbit’.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. February 16. Accessed March 2017. https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/friendship-7%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98fourth-orbit%E2%80%99.

NASA. n.d. “Space Shuttle Era Facts.” NASA.gov. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/566250main_SHUTTLE%20ERA%20FACTS_040412.pdf.

Office of Management and Budget. 2017. “American First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” Budget Outline. http://www.budget.gov.

Orf, Darren. 2017. “Russia and the U.S. Might Team Up For a Mission to Venus.” Popular Mechanics. January 27. Accessed March 2017. http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/solar-system/a24790/roscosmos-nasa-venus-joint-mission/.

  1. State of the Union Address. Performed by Ronald Reagan. January 25. Accessed March 2017. https://history.nasa.gov/reagan84.htm.

Schoenfelder, V., H. Aarts, K. Bennett, H. de Boer, J. Clear, and W. Collmar. 1993. ” Instrument description and performance of the Imaging Gamma-Ray Telescope COMPTEL aboard the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory.” SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS). June. Accessed March 2017. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1993ApJS…86..657S.

Sharp, TIm. 2016. “International Space Station: Facts, History & Tracking.” space.com. April 5. Accessed March 2017. http://www.space.com/16748-international-space-station.html.

Siceloff, Steven. 2012. “1970s: Kennedy Dispatches Probes to Far Reaches as Apollo Ends.” NASA Kennedy Space Center. June 29. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/history/timeline/70s-decade.html.

  1. “Space Station Assembly.” NASA.gov. October 23. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/structure/elements/partners_agreement.html.

n.d. “Team.” NASA: The James Webb Space Telescope. Accessed March 2017. http://webbtelescope.org/article_section/team.

  1. “The Apollo-Soyuz Mission.” NASA. March 18. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo-soyuz/astp_mission.html.

n.d. “The Early History and Development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).” Eisenhower Archives. Accessed March 2017. https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/nasa.html.

n.d. “The First Dryden-Blagonravov Agreement – 1962.” SP-4209 The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Accessed March 2017. http://www.hq.nasa.gov/pao/History/SP-4209/ch2-3.htm.

Jenner, Lynn, ed. 2009. “The Hubble Story.” NASA.gov. May 19. Accessed March 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/story/the_story.html.

  1. “The James Webb Space Telescope.” Team Players. May 04. Accessed March 2017. http://webbtelescope.org/article/Partners/4.

n.d. “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Accessed March 2017. http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html.

n.d. “Tribute to the Space Shuttle.” European Space Agency. Accessed March 2017. http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_Spaceflight/Space_Shuttle/Spacelab.

University of New Hampshire. n.d. “The Comptel Collaboration.” unh.edu. Accessed March 2017. http://wwwgro.unh.edu/comptel/comptel_collaboration.html .

Watanabe, Hirotaka. 2003. “Japan-U.S. Space Relations during the 1960s: Dependence or Autonomy?” Aerospace Research Central. 54th International Astronautical Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, and the International Institute of Space Law . October 3. Accessed March 2017. http://arc.aiaa.org/doi/pdf/10.2514/6.IAC-03-IAA.2.2.05.

Wilford, John Noble. 1989. “U.S. AND RUSSIANS WORKING TOGETHER IN EXPLORING SPACE.” New York TImes. May 8. Accessed March 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/08/us/us-and-russians-working-together-in-exploring-space.html?pagewanted=all.


Note: the image is of the Washington Monument on a clear summer night in Washington, DC.


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