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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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Nor is the US alone in being wary. Peeters notes that Europe also has concerns about Chinese guardedness with space technology. "Very valid concerns about China's goals in space" exist, says Joan Johnson-Freese, who heads national security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "The Chinese are so stingy with sharing any information that it is very easy to suspect the worst. The Obama administration is far more amenable to working with China, but they will have a problem with a small but very vocal group in Congress." Still, she adds, "We have to stop ignoring the fact that there is a third manned spaceflight program out there."

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The Obama administration's overtures to China on other issues leads Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Peking University, to conclude that "there will be more and more opportunities to cooperate" in space. "Cooperation requires mutual trust and something useful from both sides," he says. "China can make a contribution that it could not make 10 years ago, and its international relations are improving."

While political differences may keep nations from teaming up in space, teaming up in space can be a powerful force in reducing political tensions. Roger Launius, a former NASA historian and curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington, notes that when the Clinton administration pushed to bring Russia into the space station partnership, the objective had little to do with the cosmos and everything to do with foreign-policy objectives. At the same time, however, it was clear Russia had experience and skills to bring to the partnership. "It's a way of bringing our allies into things and making allies of nations that weren't allies in the past," he says.

That might seem quaint in the absence of the cold war. But he suggests that this aspect of international cooperation in human spaceflight may be just as important today.

Writing in the journal Astropolitics, Dr. Launius notes that if post-cold-war conflicts now represent a clash of civilizations, rather than a clash of two superpowers, cooperation in space could become an avenue for building alliances and cooperation among peoples. Scientific knowledge, breakthroughs in technology, and freeze-dried foods may be good reasons for heading beyond low-Earth orbit. But some of these traditional justifications "may well pale in comparison with the very real possibility of enhancing cross-civilization relations through this one act of working together to tackle an enormous challenge."

Someone summon Captain Kirk.

r Contributing to this report were Peter Ford in Beijing and Fred Weir in Moscow.