Major powers compete and cooperate in space. The more they cooperate in space, the less likely it is that their competition on Earth will result in military confrontation. The reverse is also true.  

The United States and the Soviet Union jockeyed for geopolitical advantage and produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Both periodically tested anti-satellite weapons, and President Ronald Reagan once proposed to deploy a defensive shield in space. But on the whole, the competition in space between the two nuclear superpowers was remarkably restrained. As early as 1972, they agreed not to interfere with each other’s intelligence-gathering satellites, and in 1975, they carried out a docking of their Apollo and Soyuz space capsules. Despite the ups and downs of U.S.-Russian relations, cooperation continues in space, most visibly on the international space station.

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy provided an object lesson on how major powers could shift gears from confrontation to cooperation. Less than 10 months after the harrowing Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy went out on a different limb, seeking a treaty banning nuclear testing.  

Kennedy engineered this shift through a mix of quiet, preparatory diplomacy and adept stage management. The critical public event in this choreography was Kennedy’s commencement address at American University in which he called for an era of peace between ideological foes. Kennedy challenged his fellow citizens to examine their attitudes toward peace. 

“Too many of us think it is impossible,” he said. “Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man.” 

Kennedy argued that “we can seek a relaxation of tensions without relaxing our guard.”  

While President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did not succeed in ending all nuclear tests, they managed to agree on a treaty banning them in the atmosphere. This was a significant accomplishment: In the two years leading up to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Soviet Union and the United States combined to carry out 179 atmospheric tests — an average of two mushroom clouds per week. These atmospheric tests posed hazards to spacecraft and human spaceflight, as well as to public health. 

JFK’s recipe for success in securing an end to atmospheric nuclear testing can also be applied to engineering an important space cooperation initiative between Washington and Beijing. Kennedy employed these key ingredients: 

  • Convey private messages to your competitor that you seek to change course.
  • Make a high-profile public statement calling for a specific, notable result.
  • Take a calculated risk, but avoid making an offer likely to be stiffed.
  • Dispense with oppositional rhetoric. Use a tone of respect and empathy instead.
  • Take a verifiable, meaningful, politically risky step as a sign of serious intent.
  • Call for reciprocal restraint.
  • Send a high-profile negotiator who knows his way around both capitals to cut a deal.
  • Seize the moment. Don’t dilly-dally.  

President Barack Obama has Kennedy’s gift for idealistic rhetoric, but he has yet to replicate Kennedy’s recipe for success. He has an opportunity to do so by proposing a symbolically freighted, cooperative venture between the United States and China in space.

A joint U.S.-China space initiative faces many obstacles. Some, like the signers of the Rumsfeld Space Commission report in 2000, believe that surprise attack and warfare in space are inevitable, just as some experts during the Cold War thought that deterrence would fail and that warfare between the nuclear superpowers was inevitable. Some on Capitol Hill cannot conceive of useful bilateral discussions with China on space and climate change. They have passed legislation prohibiting NASA and the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy from participating, collaborating or coordinating bilateral exchanges with their Chinese counterparts. Some worry about the loss of U.S. secrets in a collaborative, nonmilitary venture in space. Similar worries proved to be unfounded about the Apollo-Soyuz docking.

Presidents Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent the better part of two days in June out of the public glare discussing ways to successfully manage the mix of cooperation and competition between the United States and China. Press reports of their deliberations include no mention of discussions about space cooperation. If true, this reflects a poverty of imagination among their advisers and an agenda that is too filled with contentious issues to include a bold cooperative venture in space.  

While there is no shortage of issues requiring sound management of U.S.-Chinese relations — including cyberespionage, maritime and island disputes, and proliferation concerns — this list pales in comparison with what Kennedy and Khrushchev were up against. Or for that matter, what President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had to contend with when they agreed to the Apollo-Soyuz docking.  

A joint venture in space between the United States and China does not need to be as expensive or as high-profile as the Apollo-Soyuz docking to have significant symbolic and substantive value. Joint efforts to monitor climate change, space weather, planetary threats from asteroids, and other useful initiatives can be identified. As was the case during the Cold War, cooperative ventures in space can dampen competitive pursuits on Earth. President Kennedy’s recipe is waiting to be replicated.       

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, which has championed a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations since 2002.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of “Life Lessons: Recovering from Chemo and Serious Illness.”