Outer space is alive with the work of scientists, who monitor extraordinarily complex ships of exploration. These vehicles are probing ever farther within and beyond our solar system, the planets including our Earth which orbit the Sun - our special star.
Early in January, China landed a lunar vehicle on the dark side - the far side - of the moon. The Chang’e-4 craft has sent pictures that reveal predictably barren and cratered landscape. China’s first lunar mission, the orbiter Chang’e-1, launched in 2007.
The exotic name Chang’e derives from the goddess, who according to Chinese legend, inhabits the moon. This space mission has generated extensive media coverage. This includes statements that space exploration represents the latest manifestation of China’s threatening ambitions on Earth.
The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continues to be active decades after the successful 1969 mission to land men on the moon (and return them safely to Earth).
In 2004, President George W. Bush declared distant space flight a high national priority. Bush’s low-key announcement contrasts with President John F. Kennedy’s dramatic public commitment to a manned mission to the moon.
The U.S. landed the robot Spirit on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, after a complex journey of 300 million miles through the solar system, ending with a perfect touchdown. The partner rover Opportunity came down equally successfully on the other side of the planet 21 days later.
Other lander and orbital missions have followed, but the durability of these two aptly named robots is distinctive. Scientists expected them to survive for approximately 90 days but instead they transmitted for years. Spirit eventually became stuck in sand and ceased transmissions to Earth in 2010.
Opportunity temporarily stalled in a sand dune. However, engineers on Earth 100 million miles away got the vehicle going. A dust storm last June interrupted operation.
Space flight generates far less public excitement than in JFK’s time, in part because we are collectively much more cautious. Constant concern over safety of the Earth orbiting space shuttle flights represents this contemporary attitude.
Exploration of space is inherently unpredictable. Shuttle flights have remained relatively close to Earth, but two crews were lost. The only casualties of the moon program were one brave crew incinerated on Earth.
There are good reasons for continuing exploring. Tangible global cooperation is encouraged. Examples include the 2005 joint Russia-United States project in Kazakhstan to launch a satellite.
This time around, Sino-American along with Russian-American cooperation to explore Mars might improve relations between governments. Further, wider multiculturalism also beckons, including the European Union, Brazil, India, Japan and South Korea.
Perhaps the best news regarding space exploration today is cooperation on earth. Earlier in January, the National Space Administration of China (CNSA) and NASA shared technical information, spurred by the mutual desire to take maximum advantage of the Chang’e-4 mission. This is reportedly the first time since 2011 such sensitive scientific collaboration has occurred.
Science helped fuel the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but even then, there was positive non-military cooperation. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1958 had the ancillary benefit of agreement to keep Antarctica free of military activity.
In that realm, as in many others, President (and retired Army General) Dwight D. Eisenhower deserves great credit for orchestrating both scientific cooperation and arms control agreement.
American and other leaders should look to his example, more than ever.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.