Barry Wilmore is pictured working on the third spacewalk outside the ISS last Sunday by fellow crew member Terry Virts. Image credit: NASA

Mar 8, 2015 Can the world still work together in space?

Sen—Astronauts aboard the International Space Station returned to science missions within the orbiting outpost this week, following the three spacewalks that prepared for the docking of commercial crews in the future.

Several went foraging around the ISS, taking samples of microbes, such as from bacteria and fungus. It was for a Japanese-led experiment designed to protect astronauts’ health by keeping the air pure. 

When the microbes are examined back on Earth, the research should lead to cleaner environments in laboratories and food processing plants, once again demonstrating how space science is improving all our lives.

What the ISS has also shown since its conception, and the start of construction in 1998, is a remarkable collaboration between once great rivals in the world, notably the U.S. and Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union.

No sensible person could fail to appreciate such a harmonious and pragmatic relationship which has allowed the ISS to become the longest continually occupied habitat in space since its first crew arrived to stay in November 2000.

It allowed NASA to build enough trust in its Russian partners for the Space Shuttle to be retired when there was no alternative vehicle ready to ferry US astronauts to orbit. Instead the agency has allocated funds to pay Russia to fly its crews aboard their Soyuz spaceships since 2011.

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Expedition 20, in 2009, was the first time that all five ISS partner nations were represented together on board the station. They were, from left to right, Russia’s Roman Romanenko, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, Europe’s Frank De Winne, NASA’s Michael Barratt, Canada’s Bob Thirsk, NASA’s Tim Kopra, and Russia’s Gennady Padalka. Image credit: NASA

But inevitably perhaps, things are changing. Political events back on Earth have consipired to sow seeds of mistrust between nations that are partners in space. Western nations have taken sanctions against President Putin’s Russia even as they still collaborate in space. Now there are clear signs that this close co-operation in orbit is being tested.

Though Russia has just agreed to continue providing modules for the ISS until 2014, a four-year extension that came as a relief to the U.S., it plans to go it alone after that by building its own space station.

By then, of course, NASA will have a fleet of its own spacecraft, some commercial and some NASA-owned, to fly astronauts into orbit and beyond. Europe will be providing a vital support module for the agency’s own Orion spacecraft, based on its proven ATV technology. But the level of collaboration, if any, with Russia ten years hence is impossible to predict.

Some might say that a Cold War Mk II would be good for advancement in human space activities. There is no doubt that the “space race” of the 1960s was an incredible driver that propelled the U.S. from putting its first man in space in May 1961 to landing the first men on the Moon in July 1969—a huge advance in just eight years.

A new kind of space race appears to be beginning anyway with the entry of a relatively new major player in the field, in the form of China. Following the successful launch of its first taikonaut in 2003, with more following, China is planning a permanent space station of its own in 2020 and missions to fly humans to the Moon after that.

So it seems that a golden age of collaboration might be about to wane, and we will see China, the U.S. and Russia all embarking on their own separate projects to gain a dominant presence in Earth orbit, and then outposts on the Moon and eventually Mars.

Hopefully, at a time when we see some sections of the human race rejecting science and reason, and turning to barbarism, the forward-looking minds that have achieved such advances in space will continue to work together for the benefit of all humankind.

Astronauts and space engineers paid tribute last week to Leonard Nimoy, following the death of the actor who played Star Trek’s original Mr Spock. Many were inspired to work in space by the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

Part of that starship’s inspiration was that it was an internationally-crewed vessel (plus a Vulcan of course), and battles were not fought between the crew members but with those pesky Klingons as it travelled the galaxy to keep the peace.  

Some visionaries today are already planning real starships to travel to other suns, such as Project Icarus. Without the convenience of warp drive, such missions would take many thousands of years and the starships become home for generations of humans.

They would no doubt be international too, even as, with passing centuries, that word began to lose any logical meaning to a mind like Spock's.