Cold wars and low-Earth orbits


Astronauts and cosmonauts met in low-Earth orbit for the first time in 1975. The Cold War, which sometimes ran hot, still raged some 250 miles below. The symbolic meeting marked the end of the space race and launched a period of space-related d├ętente between the world’s two superpowers.

The historic handshake was made possible by the joint development of a space docking system that within 20 years would enable US space shuttles to dock at the Russian Mir space station and later the International Space Station.

But cold wars have a way of returning, and Russia seems nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the late but unlamented USSR. After years of joint missions and co-habitation on the ISS, Russia announced this week that it will leave the station at the end of 2024, when its current commitment expires. (It’s not like current ISS cosmonauts can just Uber back down to Earth.)

Russian officials have been hinting of leaving the ISS since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and more likely since the West’s sanction-heavy reaction to it. NASA, the lead agency in ISS operations, has spent $100 billion on the station and had planned to use it through 2030. But Russia’s impending departure puts those plans on hold.

Operated jointly by NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the European Space Agency and the space agencies of Japan and Canada, ISS has served as an important laboratory where scientists have experimented on the effects of weightlessness and radiation. NASA has deemed the research conducted on ISS essential as it prepares for future manned Mars missions.

Meanwhile, that “other” cold war/space race rages on. Mainland China’s lunar probe continues to dig up dirt (and perhaps pyramids) on the dark side of the moon. Plus the Red Chinese have landed a reusable spacecraft on the surface of the moon and are planning for manned missions to the moon and Mars.

China’s space station is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. The Chinese station, named Tiangong, or “palace in the sky,” will be small, about a fifth of the size of ISS (which is visible to the naked eye in the night sky) and similar to the decommissioned Mir.

But it will be China’s. And the West will have to speculate about the research conducted there.

Just last week, a Chinese rocket delivered a laboratory cabin module that was docked to the station. The trip took less than 20 hours. By way of comparison, SpaceX in April delivered astronauts to the ISS in about 16 hours, and in 2020, a special “ultrafast” two-orbit flight plan sent Russia’s Soyez MS-17 to the station in about three hours.

Through companies like SpaceX, commercialization of outer space–the necessary commercialization–is underway. Red China has been open about its plans to commercialize the moon, and it has a head start. Not telling what all that dark-side rover has learned.

We wonder how long it will be before commercial flights are ferrying scientists like Arthur C. Clarke’s Dr. Heywood Floyd to a moon base.

And it wouldn’t surprise us to see Russian cosmonauts shaking hands with Chinese taikonauts on board Tiangong before you can say live long and prosper.

Leave a Comment