This weekend sees the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade. One hundred and sixty years later, Crimea and Ukraine are still a source of immense tension between Russia and the West.
Space has become a collateral casualty in the tightening sanctions levied against Russia. Russian companies are having to source instruments and equipment from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, breaking old supply chains formed over decades, which may never be reconnected. Manufacturing times of Roscosmos satellites have considerably increased and the cooperation in relation to the international space station may be ending four years prematurely. Most worrying of all, if Russia stops supplying the RD-180 engine, a risk mitigation study chaired by retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Howard Mitchell concluded that the “national launch baseline manifest” would not be “supportable beyond March 2016.” Furthermore, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has described matters as a “hostage situation.”
Space must rise like sport, science and culture above such short-term political disagreements. This imperative is particularly acute in science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiatives, which have massive potential in creating and bonding together a much needed new wave of “starry-eyed” Russian and American space enthusiasts.
Russia and the United States have worked closely for decades in space research, often at times of great international tension. With the world being currently showered by the cosmic trail of Halley’s Comet, it is worth remembering that during the early 1980s these two nations worked as one on a important project to analyze the comet. Despite the U.S. boycott of Moscow’s 1980 Olympic Games, the research continued unscathed and indeed the United States contributed a vital supporting role in the subsequent joint Soviet-European Space Agency Vega missions. Even when the Soviet Union was collapsing, collaboration on space continued, keeping open vital lines of communication.
The deep and resonant influence of Moscow on the West is evident at every level of civilized life. From Tchaikovsky to Tsiolkovsky, our culture and our science are Russia’s culture and Russia’s science. Together we have seen off two dictators bent on world domination, Napoleon and Hitler, each effort requiring communication, strength and immense loss in terms of blood and treasure.
A dark and virulent force is rising in the Middle East: militant Salafism, the Ebola of Islam. It is time again for the United States and Russia to work together, or at least allow space research work to go on unhindered as it has done for 40 years. Better by far Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” than the black flag of the Islamic State.
As Capt. Louis Nolan of the British army declared at Balaclava, “There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns.” Instead the orders were given to attack the wrong valley.
Russia has huge problems facing it. However, it is a country the West can negotiate with, a place populated with people we can “do business with,” as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher articulated approvingly of her Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. This is especially true in space. In any event, what do sanctions achieve in an interconnected world where cross-border relationships are increasingly symbiotic? In space we must “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and work, as the previous generation did, for the benefit of all humanity.
The enemy of all of us and the threat to our way of life is not Russia. Instead it is the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and all the other twisted, malicious variants of a global religion that once led the world in science and space research. It is an enemy that cannot be appeased or reasoned with. An alien menace.
In the movie “Independence Day,” the president asks the captive extraterrestrial locust the following question: “What do you want us to do?” The chilling reply: “Die. Die.”
There are the guns. There is the enemy.
Harry Corlett is a 16-year-old student at Winchester College in the U.K.