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Should nations fly to the moon together?

As exploring the heavens becomes more expensive, many experts think it is time for nations to band together to push humanity to the next threshold of space exploration.

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On July 19, 1969, Neil Armstrong made his historic boot print on the moon. It was a "booya" moment in Washington's geopolitical competition with the Soviets. After all, the Russians had orbited the first satellite and the first human. President Kennedy was looking for a heat in the space race the US could win. He set out the challenge to put an astronaut on the moon within the decade in an address to a joint session of Congress in May 1961.

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But less than a month later, Kennedy held a summit with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Krushchev, in Vienna and proposed the two countries go to the moon together, according to Howard McCurdy of American University in Washington, D.C. By then, the president had seen intimidating cost estimates for a man-on-the-moon effort. A partner could help share the expense and perhaps allow Kennedy to ease up on the ambitious timetable.

Krushchev first said nyet. Kennedy pressed. The Soviet leader came back and said: Disarmament first, then we can do it. Kennedy thought it was a ploy to discourage a joint lunar effort. But the Soviet leader was serious, Dr. McCurdy notes. The US might be able to pay for an arms race and a trip to the moon, but Krushchev knew the Soviet Union couldn't.

Kennedy extended the hand once more in his address to the United Nations in September 1963. Two months later, he was assassinated. It would take a different president and another 12 years before the US and Russian astronauts mated an Apollo spacecraft with a Soyuz capsule in the first cooperative human-spaceflight project between the two countries.

Today, the picture has changed dramatically. The cold war is over. The Russians have made major contributions to the International Space Station, joining the Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese as the project's lead partners.

The notable new entrant in human spaceflight is China. Beijing has launched three manned orbital missions in the past six years. The latest venture, in December 2008, carried three astronauts into orbit. Two of them conducted China's first spacewalk.

India, meanwhile, plans to launch its first astronaut sometime between 2014 and 2015. If successful, it would become the fourth country with the ability to launch humans into orbit.

All this is one more reason some think the time is right for a new era of cooperation in space. So many different countries now have something to contribute to the voyage.

Evidence of this was a pact signed in 2007 by 14 space agencies, including ones representing countries outside the traditional cast of rocketeers: China, Australia, South Korea. Dubbed the Global Exploration Strategy, the agreement envisions cooperation on a range of levels – from simple two-country projects to complex space-station-like efforts. It also encourages nations to build vehicles and equipment by using common design standards. Preliminary work was under way on the standards for lunar hardware when the Obama administration called for a review of NASA's manned spaceflight program.