This week, the United States is hosting the first International Space Exploration Forum, a ministerial-level meeting of space agency directors from various space-faring nations. Hopefully, this represents the first move by the U.S. government to employ more of its resources in support of “public diplomacy.”
During much of the Cold War, the U.S. engaged the Soviet Union in a comprehensive competition, including not only military means but economic, scientific, and even cultural aspects. Indeed, the impetus to go into space, and the eventual “space race” that saw Neil Armstrong take his historic giant leap for all mankind, was part of that larger competition.
Today, although the U.S. is no longer engaged in as fierce or as direct a competition against a specific opponent, the battle for global influence continues and is arguably even deeper, as it has become more multilateral. At the same time, as the 35 invitees reflects, space has also become more crowded as more states have developed space programs.
This is further complicated by the growing range of space options. States may not have their own launch capabilities or satellite manufacturing capacity, yet they nonetheless own and operate communications satellites or purchase high-resolution space images. Satellite navigation receivers—whether tuned to the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS, the Chinese Beidou/Compass, or eventually the European Galileo system (or all four)—are commonly available around the world, making space a more globally accessed capacity than ever before.
In this context, the U.S. enjoys at least one major advantage: NASA is one of the world’s most recognized brands and is one of the most heavily engaged in social media. NASA projects such as the Mars rover Curiosity have attracted avid followers. Given the expanding range of nations with space capabilities, NASA would seem to offer an attractive and natural means for building cooperation with other states.