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Introduction to Space Exploration - DÉtente In Space

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During the early years of space flight, American relations with the Soviet Union were at their worst. Only months after the Soviets put their first cosmonauts in space the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a veiled threat: "We placed Gagarin and Titov in space, and we can replace them with other loads that can be directed to any place on Earth." The meaning was clear to the American public. The Soviet Union's powerful rockets could carry nuclear warheads just as easily as they carried humans.

In October 1962 U.S. spy planes captured photographs of nuclear missile installations being built by the Soviets on the island of Cuba, only ninety miles from the coast of Florida. President Kennedy and his advisers considered their options to stop this threat: lodging diplomatic protests, attacking and destroying the facilities, or blockading the seas around Cuba to block Soviet ships from reaching it. Diplomacy had proved ineffective with the Soviets, and a military attack could launch an all-out nuclear war. In the end Kennedy chose the blockade.

The Soviets protested angrily and shot down an American spy plane as it flew over Cuba, killing the pilot. The situation became very tense, and nuclear war seemed imminent. Finally, the two sides agreed that the Soviets would dismantle the bases in Cuba, and the United States would remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it was later called, is now considered one of the most dangerous events of the entire Cold War.

Détente is a French word that means a relaxation of strained relations. The United States and the Soviet Union occasionally enjoyed periods of détente during the Cold War, particularly in their space activities. A few months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis the two nations agreed to cooperate in launching some meteorological and other science satellites and share the data obtained. In 1965 a joint project was undertaken in which U.S. and Soviet scientists shared information they had learned about space biology and medicine.

In 1967 the two countries negotiated a United Nations Treaty regarding the application of international law to outer space. It was called the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It is more commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty.

The treaty provides a basic framework for activities allowed and not allowed in space and during space travel. The main principles are:

  • Nations cannot place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit or elsewhere in space.
  • Outer space is open to all humankind and all nations for exploration and use.
  • Outer space cannot be appropriated or claimed for ownership by any nation.
  • Celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes.
  • Nations cannot contaminate outer space or celestial bodies.
  • Astronauts are "envoys of mankind."
  • Nations are responsible for all their national space activities whether conducted by governmental agencies or non-governmental organizations.
  • Nations are liable for any damage caused by objects they put into space.

On January 27, 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. Over the next four decades it would be signed by more than one hundred nations.

In 1969 NASA proposed development of U.S. and Soviet spacecraft that could dock with each other in space for future missions of mutual interest. In July 1975 the docking procedure proved to be successful during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The mission was considered largely symbolic, and many people considered it wasted money that could have been spent on space exploration.

Near the end of the Apollo program the two countries agreed to a number of cooperative projects including sharing of lunar samples, weather satellite data, and space medical data.

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