Future Space Exploration Hinges on International Cooperation, Astronauts Say
Sunlight glints off the International Space Station with the blue limb of Earth providing a dramatic backdrop in this photo taken by an astronaut on the shuttle Endeavour just before it docked after midnight on Feb. 10, 2010 during the STS-130 mission.
Credit: NASA

The final frontier must become more of an international endeavor or space exploration could stagnate, according to three veteran astronauts from two different countries.

Only through further collaboration between nations can humanity reach its next major space goals, the spaceflying group — which included a former NASA astronaut, an American space tourist and the first Chinese man to fly into space — said at the 26th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., this month.

"I think the development of space endeavors is not for one nation or one country," said Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut. "I myself as an astronaut, I believe that the multinational, the international cooperation is the future triumph of the development of space industry," he said through a translator.

Liwei flew aboard China's first manned spaceflight, the Shenzhou 5 mission in October 2003.

"During the spaceflight I showed the national flag of China, but as well I displayed the flag of the United Nations that showed that it is the common cause of all mankind and that we are coming to space for peaceful purposes." He noted that flying over various countries while in space required no visa, because the Earth and space belong to all mankind.

Former NASA astronaut Tom Henricks, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, agreed. He said that the future in space will require much more collaboration between countries than there's been in the past.

"I don't think any major effort in space will again be done by a single nation," Henricks said. "They may each have individual sub goals, but it's a human endeavor to go to Mars, and I think that's the way it needs to be approached."

Henricks was part of a recent American delegation that visited the Chinese space and launch facilities — in some cases, they were the first Westerners to view these sites.

"More importantly than seeing the facility and how modern and prepared the Chinese are for the programs, it was seeing that they are open and willing to cooperate and to move forward," Henricks said. While America has a longer space history to draw upon, China will have more resources to devote to space in the future, he said, and these factors would make for a great collaboration.

The third panelist, American computer game entrepreneur Richard Garriott, traveled to space in October 2008 as a paying customer aboard a Russian Soyuz trip to the International Space Station, a $100 billion space outpost built by 16 different countries and five major space agencies representing the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.

Garriott, who is the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, said he witnessed the teamwork between Russians and Americans first-hand while training and flying aboard the station, and called space exploration "ultimately one of the greatest and most important catalysts for international cooperation on Earth."

Yet, the future of space partnerships will not be a perfectly smooth road, he said. For example, he also witnessed "periodic political butting of heads," between the nations over who provides which services and for what price, he said.

For example, earlier this month NASA signed a $335 million deal with Russia to buy six new round-trip seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station between 2013 and 2014. That deal boosted the price per seat to $55.8 million, up from $50 million in an earlier agreement that ends in 2012.

"I agree that it will demand international cooperation, but I think that our nation as well as many of our partner nations still have some work to do as far as really politically working together as well as we need to to accomplish these goals," Garriott said.