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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FORGING NEW partnerships in space won't be as easy as saying, "Beam me aboard, Scotty." One reason: the cultural differences in the way countries approach space. For instance, Walter Peeters, dean of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, recounts how the US acclimates astronauts to weightlessness versus the Russian way.Skip to next paragraph
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To overcome motion sickness that can occur when astronauts are in orbit, the US takes the pharmaceutical approach: It gives astronauts pills. The Russians, on the other hand, will spin cosmonauts in special chairs for longer and longer periods of time to help them adapt ahead of time. "They [the Russians] have a very mechanical culture," says Dr. Peeters. "Everything that docks or clamps goes bang or boom – it makes a lot of noise."
Each country brings its own idiosyncrasies as well as intelligence to the drafting table. Peeters notes that the Russians have always tended to be far more wary of having computers control spacecraft than the Europeans or Americans. That stems from the country's historical lack of computing prowess compared with the West's. Similarly, in the US and Europe, engineers rely much more on systems like global positioning satellites and electronics in triplicate when operating space vehicles.
"That is a bigger stumbling block than most people think," says Peeters.
Nor are the cultural differences limited to just nuts and bolts. When the Russians first joined the International Space Station effort, Westerners were shocked that Russia made the medical records of its cosmonauts public – unlike in the US, where such files are strictly confidential.
Politics may be an even bigger impediment to cooperating in space than cultural factors. Some analysts outside the US wonder how sincere NASA is about working with other countries on major projects, such as manned missions to the moon or Mars. "Americans are very self-sufficient people," says Igor Lisov, a columnist for Novosti Kosmonavtiki, a leading Russian space-science journal. "They still think they can return to the moon by themselves. Only recently have they begun to think twice about that, and they still aren't asking for help."
China represents another player whose seat at the drafting table is uncertain, especially in US eyes. In 1999, a panel set up by the US House of Representatives concluded that China had stolen US nuclear and other secrets. This prompted Washington to veto China's participation in the International Space Station. [Editor’s note: The original version implied that Brazil got the invitation to join the International Space Station when China didn’t. Brazil was already on board, having joined the ISS effort in 1997.]
An international spaceflight effort involving China and the US "is not going to happen" for the foreseeable future, says Eric Hagt, who heads the China program at the World Security Institute in Washington.