Gravitating to conflict?

Space has been militarized ever since humanity could reach it, but with treaties only banning nuclear weapons in space, and tensions simmering on the ground, a second Space Race seems inevitable. Is cooperation between Russia and the West a good enough driver of progress, or do we need competition to stop space exploration from stagnating? Oksana is joined by former Commander of the International Space Station and Twitter sensation Chris Hadfield to discuss the gravity of these issues.


Oksana Boyko @OksanaBoyko_RT
Worlds Apart @WorldsApart_RT

Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. Yesterday marked the 53rd anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's iconic flight that hurled man into space. But in the half-century that followed, man hasn't moved much beyond Earth's orbit. What is keeping us back? To discuss it, I'm now joined by Canadian astronaut and Twitter sensation, Chris Hadfield. Commander Hadfield, thank you very much for being on the show, it's a great honour for us.

Chris Hadfield: Thank you Oksana, it's a delight to be speaking with you, thank you for the invitation.

OB: Now, you're certainly a person who is familiar with both the co-operation and competition sides of the Russian-western relationship, having flown intercept missions against the Soviet Union, but also having worked with the Russians here in this country, and also on the International Space Station, and looking back at your experience and both co-operation and competition aspects of it, it would seem that much greater technological and scientific advances were made when the two sides were at odds rather than working together, so I wonder if it would be fair to say that it is in the interests of progress to be in a state of conflict, to be in a state of competition, rather than co-operation.

CH: That's a very long statement Oksana, with all sorts of content to it, let me address it for you. Um, what we have orbiting the world right now is the first great human outpost in space, where we left Earth 13 years ago, not just as one country, but as a species. Fifteen leading nations of the world have built the International Space Station. It is an incredible human achievement, and we have successfully managed to operate the station, despite the continuous competition of accidents, of budgets, of the reality of life; and yet there are six people living up there, representatives of our whole planet. It's an incredible achievement and it stands very much on the fifty years of work that led up to it. The space station is the pinnacle of all that. And it's a result of both the competition and the co-operation that has led up to it over the last fifty years.

OB: But Commander Hadfield isn't that also true that the International Space Station is still very much operating on some of the designs that were developed back in the 1970s? And it's true that some countries like Canada for example, have contributed their most advanced technology to the project, but they also remain very protective, very guarding of those technologies, so it seems that, you know, that spectacular synergy effect that everybody was hoping for, hasn't quite taken place.

CH: I think you're confusing space entertainment with space exploration. The initial things that you do in space, the initial things you do anywhere, of course, are entertaining; and they have to be brand new, because they're the first time you've done them. But after that comes the gradual, incremental movement into a new place, and we are not going into space for the first time – you can only do that once. What Yuri Gagarin did was right on the edge of miraculous, it was incredible; but you can't fly for the first time into space, twice. At some point, it stops being a brand new, exciting and dangerous thing, and starts instead to become part of what humanity does; and you could say that you and I are talking to each other right now, based on technology that came from the 60’s and the 70’s – and cameras and radios are not much different now than they were 30 years ago, but that's irrelevant; that's how you build capability and technology, and the fact that we do this co-operatively in space – I helped build the Russian Space Station Mir, back twenty years ago as well, as well as was a fighter pilot in defensive Canada – they're all connected. But at the same time, we have a multinational space station up there and to me it is, it is a shining example for everybody in the world of the type of things we can do together when we do things right.

OB: Mr Hadfield, but to take your space entertainment point, you know, they were, there were quite a number of milestones, major milestones - you mentioned one, Yuri Gagarin flight, then there was a man walking on the moon, also very important and inspirational project, - moment, for you personally I know – as well as for millions of people around the world, who I bet, at that time, thought that – wow, if we can do that now, imagine what we would be able to do fifty years from now; and yet, it seems that um, you know, essentially, those major leaps and bounds of the 1960’s have been replaced by baby steps. I mean something like doing experiments on the effects of gravity on mice – sure, it's important, but it's not as spectacular as the man walking on the moon.

CH: That’s true, so maybe you would like us to have a first walk on the moon again every week, which again is impossible. You need to remember and be a better student of history - by Apollo 12 people were bored with the novelty of walking on the moon. If you have a race, the trouble with a race is as soon as you cross the finish line the race is over. I think maybe another way to look at it is - a great imagined thing in the late 60’s was the movie that was Arthur C. Clark’s book: ‘2001, a Space Odyssey’. The idea that there might be a space station up there that vehicles from different countries would go to, where people live up there on a permanent basis – and that’s our first great outpost as a species, that is teaching us to go further into the universe, that was the vision of ‘2001, a Space Odyssey’, a movie that I watched as a kid, and that vision is a reality. That’s what the International Space Station is. You can’t expect it to always be an explosion of newness all the time. At some point it becomes an extension of what we do. And we’re learning how to build space ships, how to build reliable communication systems, how to navigate, how do you keep crews health – we have to invent all of that stuff on the space station before we can successfully go further permanently, before we can leave Earth orbit, not just for a couple of days, but on a permanent expansion of human understanding. Space station’s where all that happens.

OB: But the question is – what is the best mode for that, you know, progress to take place? And if I can take you back to that competition aspect of it, China is one country that was excluded from the International Space Station project at the insistence of NASA, which cited security concerns, and China has decided to do it on its own, and it’s now building its own space station, which is expected to become operational by 2020. And for a nation that was only able to send a man into space independently, when was it, I think 2003, that’s quite an achievement, and that achievement, arguably, is also driven by competition, not cooperation.

CH: It was very much driven by cooperation. China came to Russia in the late 80’s and early 90’s and spent years working with the Russian expertise, working at the, Star City just outside of Moscow, studying how crews were trained, what the equipment looked like, what the Soyuz looked like, what the space suits looked like, and they worked in extremely close cooperation with the Russian space agency and Russia itself in order to develop their own program so that they could move so quickly, to the point that they now have a space station that, of course, is very similar in design to the Russian part of the International Space Station. And in the late 80’s, it was inconceivable that the Russian program and the NASA-led program of the International Space Station would work together, and yet, because of cooperation, and because of the changes of history, and fortunately, Russia’s been a part of the International Space Station since its beginning. After the Columbia accident, we would have been in a terrible situation if we hadn’t had cooperation. Because of the ability of other nations to have a vehicle to resupply and take people up to the station. So, it’s a shining example of space station, of cooperation, much as the Chinese program has been with Russia.

OB: I wonder if this shining example could be in danger now, because we all know that the relations between Russia and the West, Russia and the United States as well as Canada are a bit strained at the moment, and all those countries are talking about possibly introducing sanctions against Russia. And one area where Russia could choose to retaliate would be the space program by simply refusing to shuttle the western astronauts to the International Space Station. Do you think it’s likely to happen, and where do you think it would lead all of us?

CH: Running the planet is a complex activity, especially for the larger nations of the world – they have a tremendous responsibility to their own citizens and to the rest of the world. I think at times when there are tensions, and there are always tensions – you know, don’t kid anybody. But at a time when there’s very public tension, like some of the things that have recently happened, that’s when it’s even more important to have some goof shining examples of cooperation, because not everything is sitting in one basket. It’s a huge multi-faceted problem of how nations cooperate with each other and the nations that they belong to. And the inter-governmental agreements that we’ve all signed up to that have bound us to work, and that have created the International Space Station, it creates an environment that is unprecedented, and really stands right now as one of the things that we’re doing together that is right. So, I think we’ve been working together since, oh gosh, since the early 90’s on the Mir program, and then on the International Space Station, and I’m really delighted that it stands as such a great example , in amongst the trials that go along with normal life.

OB: Commander Hadfield, you wrote in your book that getting to know the Russian culture has taught you not to rush or push your expectations onto Russians. Why do you think the West in general fails to reach the same conclusion? Is there a cultural disconnect preventing Russia and the West from understanding each other and thereby constantly driving their relationship into antagonism?

CH: Oksana, I really think it’s your and my job to help solve that problem. The reason that you and I are talking today is to try and better understand other people’s cultures. Cultures are complex, and especially when viewed from a foreign culture. Russian people don’t understand American culture or Canadian culture very well, and Canadians and Americans don’t understand Russian culture very well, but it’s a thing that can only be improved. And when you get an example of, like you and I have the opportunity to speak, or people maybe have a look at the Olympics, or people can look at the International Space Station and the fact that it’s not just six people in orbit, but it’s thousands of people on Earth that are working together on a daily basis, traveling back and forth, looking at the technology and by almost osmosis, having a chance to understand each other’s culture better, that’s the only way to solve that problem. And it’ll always rear its head of various reasons, and instances when we’re not communicating well, but it is through communication and incremental work together that we can make it better, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 21 years as an astronaut and a part of ISS, and I think it had a very strong, positive net effect over time.

OB: Now, as you know, on Earth we have lots of problems, you know, one of such problem is the financial

crisis that people are still dealing with, and I wonder what do you say when people are asking you – ‘ look, money is short for the very basic things here on Earth, why top spend it on space’? What is your usual answer to that?

CH: Well, I would ask how much? Do the people that are asking that question, do they actually know the numbers that they’re speaking of, or are they just talking hypothetically? How much money does a nation or an organisation spend on research and development and exploration, and how much do they spend on the health and welfare of their citizens. I’m from Canada, so I’ll speak on Canada’s behalf. For every $1000 that the Canadian Government spends, we spend about $240, out of every $1000, on health and welfare of our citizens, and we spend about three cents on the astronaut program. So three one-hundredths of a dollar on the astronaut program, out of every thousand dollars! So, where’s the right balance, and also where’s the money spent? I think in your phrase you said ‘spending money on space or in space’, that’s not where the money’s spent, of course. The money is spent within the economy. And if it’s spent on research and development and pushing back the edges of technology on inventions like the robot arms that Canada’s built, that are now used in arms in hospitals to do brain surgery, or if it’s spent on medical research equipment like Microflow, that is a blood flow machine about the size of a toaster, that is now used in businesses across the world. Then there’s a real net positive impact on the health and welfare and the economy of the country. So I think you can easily make a throwaway statement about money being spent in space, but if you actually look at the amount of money that’s spent in proportion and the benefits that come to your economy and your own organisation, I think you’ll see that the money’s being spent pretty wisely. It’s just a matter of doing the research and finding out where the actual money goes and what it’s used for.

OB: OK, Mr Hadfield we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back: With Russia and the West at loggerheads once again, how much longer will outer space remain free of weapons? That’s coming up in a few moments, here, on Worlds Apart.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing space cooperation and militarisation of space with astronaut, Chris Hadfield. Commander Hadfield, ever since the first satellite was launched by the Soviets in 1957, we’ve been thinking about how to regulate the use of space, and it seems that the one thing we could agree on is its peaceful use by all of mankind, and yet while international treaties ban the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, they fall short of a total ban on weaponisation. Doesn’t this leave the door open for another arms race, given the strategic importance of space?

CH: There’s nothing sacred or miraculous about space – it’s just the volume that’s around the Earth, and it goes on forever. And one of the reasons we’ve had limitations, practical limitations on the weaponisation of space has been largely due to the extreme complexity of getting to space, the complex access, and that helps to limit it. Only a few countries in the world are in a position to decide what gets launched into space and therefore it becomes easier to limit. But as our technology improves, as access to space becomes cheaper and cheaper, one of the effects of that is going to be that a lot more nations, and a lot more organisations will have access to space, and that’s when we’ll realise that there’s nothing sacred about it or miraculous, even though that’s how it first looked. It’s just an extension of humanity, and people will have the same temptations and the same behaviour that we’ve always had in two dimensions, once we get free access to three dimensions. That’s why it’s even more important, especially for the leading nations of the world, to try and set the standards, to try and set up the framework so that as the access to space becomes easier, that there are already treaties and organisations and standards, and expectations so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all or a wildness that it might otherwise. And we’re on that path, and there are lots of great examples of that, including what we’ve done on the space station for the last 20 years.

OB: But Mr Hadfield, isn’t it also the case that those leading nations that you just mentioned tend to have rather tenuous relationship, and they have this temptation within themselves. For example, if you take the use of satellite technology, it’s very instrumental for military purposes, it could be used for all sorts of things from navigation to reconnaissance to what have you, and that makes those satellites a very valuable target in case of any outbreak of violence or conflict, really, so aren’t they simply too valuable to be left undefended, or for that matter untargeted?

CH: Well, everything you just said applies to lots of technology that exists on the ground also. Just because it’s 400 km up or 22,000 km up, doesn’t suddenly make it an entirely different set of rules, or a different set of desires or agreements. Yeah, of course, you need to look at the cost, and the expense, and the usefulness, and the vulnerability of all of the assets that any nation puts together and figure out how to defend them, but you’re blending several ideas. If you have a reconnaissance satellite, if you have a reconnaissance drone, if you have a GPS satellite – all of those things can be used for peaceful purposes like when we’re looking for a missing airliner down in the southern Indian Ocean, or for navigation of cars on the road. But all of those things have other applications as well, including military applications. It’s just technology, and it’s up to each nation, of course, if they’ve put a lot of money into developing and building something, to be able to protect it both in orbit and on Earth. There’s not some magical difference between the two, and it’s going to require careful methodical development of the same sort of rules that we’ve set up for limiting things getting out of hand on the surface of Earth, in the third dimension as we get further and further and easier access to space over time

OB: Well, that actually leads us perfectly to one of the questions that was sent to you by our viewers. His name is Ross Alvaro and he raised a very interesting issue of how the altitude of countries’ airspace is still unregulated by various treaties. Essentially, his point is that any country, at this point of time, would at least contemplate shooting down a foreign army reconnaissance aircraft in its skies, but nobody as of yet is shooting down military satellites. And our viewer is asking whether there is a need for an international treaty that would, essentially, attempt to define borders, not only horizontally, but also vertically?

CH: I don’t think it’s any different than an extension of what we do on Earth. There are airliners from most of the leading nations of the world flying all around the world right now, and they aren’t armed, and they aren’t protected and escorted by fighter aircraft, but they are of course vulnerable if someone wants to do something terrible, or something in a terrorist way. Those airliners are representatives of foreign nations that are vulnerable to terrorist attack, and the only way that you can control it, of course, is through the rules that we’ve established in two dimensions, where the majority of the people live that are causing the threat. Just the fact that a satellite is at a higher altitude, higher than, whatever, 10 kilometres up, but up more kilometres than that, I think you end up with the same extension of the same sets of laws. There is vulnerability, but the people who take action in a negative way for the rest of us have to be accountable to them, both militarily and through all of the international laws that exist. I don’t think you need to impose an entirely new structure of law to deal with it just because of the height of the vehicle.

OB: But Mr Hadfield, if for example, Canada was to send a reconnaissance plane over the Russian airspace, Russians would be within their right to bring that aircraft down, but if Canada, or the United States for that matter, decides to send a satellite, you know, to fly above Russia and essentially do the same kind of reconnaissance job which is, you know, it’s a military job. At this point of time there is a bit of an ambiguity, an international ambiguity about what to do with that.

CH: I agree. There is international ambiguity but also to do anything about it is very low, so it’s one of the things, as we develop more simple access to space, and space access becomes available to beyond just the regular superpowers of the world, or the leading nations of the world, it’s going to have to become more clearly regulated, I think. But I think we can take the extension of the laws on Earth right now and find applications for them once you get above the atmosphere. I don’t think it’s nearly revelationary as it is evolutionary.

OB: OK, I wonder if I can shift gears a little bit and ask you something more light-hearted. I’m sure you watched this recent Hollywood movie, Gravity, have you?

CH: I think I was the first astronaut to see it, I was at the north American premier. I was at the Toronto International Film Festival.

OB: Well, then you’re the best person to ask this. One of the most poignant for me in that movie was that overwhelming feeling of being left one-on-one with space, and I wonder if you could relate that to your own experience of becoming, or going temporarily blind, while on your first spacewalk.

CH: Well, I mean, the movie Gravity is just entertainment. I mean Sandra Bullock herself, the lead actress in it, described it as an amusement park ride, and that’s what it is. It’s just an amusement park ride. It’s not supposed to be realistic; it’s not supposed to be a documentary or a training movie or something. It’s just like Spiderman or a horror movie, or something. It’s entertaining, you’re supposed to go and watch it and laugh and cry, not to be educated. And it’s, the, it may be sort of realistic in the visuals, they did a very compelling job with the three-dimensionality of the visuals, and they won lots of Academy Awards for the visuals, but the storyline itself is improbable, and the characters aren’t realistic, and the things that happen defy the laws of physics, but that’s exactly the same as Superman. So I don’t get too frustrated when I watch a Superman movie, because it’s not factual. It’s supposed to be an entertaining movie, and I thought it was kind of fun and entertaining, so long as you don’t try take it too seriously.

OB: Well, maybe Russians were talking it a bit too seriously. I agree it’s an entertaining and emotionally powerful movie, but I also thought it was very typical in the way it portrayed Russians, because the whole movie is centred on a plot of Russians blowing up their military satellite, which created this cloud of debris, which by extension, essentially destroyed the entire manned space program, and you know, I wonder why are those negative stereotypes about Russians so persistent, because it seems that every second American movie has a drunken cosmonaut in it. Why do you think Russians are always portrayed as irresponsible in those space movies?

CH: I think the characterisations in that movie were, every single character in space was amazingly irresponsible. If you look at the character portrayed by George Clooney, he acted like he was some sort of free-form cowboy up there. And the character portrayed by Sandra Bullock, she was so fundamentally flawed and under-trained and hyper-reactive to things. I think all of that, of course, if you try and treat a movie as some sort of realism, of course it’s going to be offensive. They didn’t try and accurately portray anything, and so they just went with typical, stereotypes that they know will help sell movies to the standard movie-going public. And, you know, if you’re going to be offended by that, then all popular cartoon media is going to end up being offensive. I think what really matters is what’s actually happening in space, and I flew in space on the Soyuz. I have enormous respect for the Russian space program. I lived on board the International Space Station, I helped build the Russian space station, Mir, and I commanded a crew from all around the world, including cosmonauts – incredibly competent, capable people, and they represent Russia for real. And they do a wonderful job of representing Russia in space, and that’s the reality of it. I wouldn’t worry too much about cartoon movies.

OB: Well, Mr Hadfield, thank you for that assessment. Unfortunately, we have to leave it there. I appreciate you being on the show.

CH: [In Russian] Thank you very much, Oksana.

OB: And to our viewers, keep the conversation going on our Twitter, Youtube and Facebook pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here, on Worlds Apart.