For years the issue of international competition and cooperation in space has dominated much space exploration policy. Indeed, it is impossible to write the history of spaceflight without discussing these themes in detail.2 The U.S. space exploration program for its first decade and a half was dominated by international rivalry and world prestige, and international relations have remained a powerful shaper of the program ever since. Indeed, all of NASA’s human spaceflight projects, from the creation of the agency until the present—the Apollo program, the space shuttle, and the space station—have enjoyed as major reasons for their conduct the furtherance of U.S. foreign-policy goals.

At first there was the Moon race—intensely competitive—in which the two superpowers locked in Cold War struggle sought to outdo each other. No cost seemed too high; no opportunity to “best” the other seemed too slight. The astronauts planted the American flag on the surface of the Moon when the great moment came in 1969, not unlike the Spanish flag planted by Columbus in America, although they did not claim the Moon for their nation. The irony of planting that flag, coupled with the statement that “we came in peace for all mankind,” was not lost on the leaders of the Soviet Union who realized that they were not considered in this context a part of the “all mankind” mentioned.

The Cold War context in which the U.S. civil space program arose in 1958 ensured that foreign policy objectives dominated the nature of the activity. This naturally led to the need for cooperative ventures with other nations. The U.S. Congress said as much in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In this chartering legislation, Congress inserted a clause mandating the new space agency to engage in international cooperation with other nations for the betterment of all humankind. This 1958 legislation provided authority for international agreements in the broad range of projects essential for the development of space science and technology in a naturally international field. The United States has a variety of methods for accomplishing such objectives: treaties, executive agreements, agency-to-agency agreements, memoranda of understanding, and letter agreements. NASA’s charter provided the widest possible latitude to the agency in undertaking international activities as the means by which the agreed goal could be reached. The scope of NASA’s international program has been fortified since that time by repeated involvement with the United Nations, bilateral and multilateral treaties, and a host of less formal international agreements.3

But with the successful termination of the Apollo program, everyone realized that the United States was the unquestioned world leader in scientific and technological virtuosity, and continued international competition seemed pointless. Certainly President Richard M. Nixon, who took office in January 1969, made it clear that there would be during his leadership no more Apollo-like space efforts. Couple this with the great desire of those working for a continuation of an aggressive space exploration effort, and the result could only be the search for a new model. While successfully continuing to tie space exploration to foreign relations objectives, now the linkage would be based more on cooperation with allies rather than competition with the nation’s Cold War rival. The exploration of space increasingly emphasized visible and exacting international programs. All of the major human spaceflight efforts, and increasingly as time progressed minor projects, have been identified since the 1970s with international partnerships.


Representative works include Frutkin, International Cooperation in Space, 1965; R. Handberg and J. Johnson-Freese, The Prestige Trap: A Comparative Study of the U.S., European, and Japanese Space Programs, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Ia., 1994; D.L. Harvey and L.C. Ciccoritti, U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, Monographs in International Affairs, Center for Advance International Studies at the University of Miami, Miami, Fla., 1974; J. Johnson-Freese, Changing Patterns of International Cooperation in Space, Orbit Books, Malabar, Fla., 1990; R.M. Bonnet and V. Manno, International Cooperation in Space: The Example of the European Space Agency, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994.


J.M. Logsdon, moderator, The Legislative Origins of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958: Proceedings of an Oral History Workshop, Monographs in Aerospace History, No. 8, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 58-59.

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