Sometimes there are moments when history passes us by, when an event of great importance gets buried in the third or fourth page of our Tuesday morning newspaper, behind stories of the president’s latest faux pas or a movie star’s new baby. We will invariably look back and ask ourselves how it happened, how something so monumental got drowned in the 24/7 news cycle.
I get the sense that “history passed us by” this week when Russia announced on Tuesday that it would withdraw from the International Space Station before the end of the decade. Russia’s announcement is the latest in a death by a million cuts for the aging and increasingly expensive-to-maintain spacecraft, so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
I get the sense that “history passed us by” this week when Russia announced on Tuesday that it would withdraw from the International Space Station before the end of the decade.
But that doesn’t change the importance of Russia’s withdrawals. The International Space Station was always about more than that particular hunk of metal in low-Earth orbit.
Like most kids, I had a phase in elementary school where I got really excited about outer space and enthusiastically set off to memorize every factoid I could find about Jupiter’s moons (now numbering 80, but only 64 of them had been discovered at the time). Space was quite literally a never-ending mystery that expanded every day, and we humans were just beginning to explore its vast cosmic reaches. A new era of human history had begun in the past century, one that people would still look back and learn about in hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
The International Space Station was one of that century’s crowning achievements, primarily because of the vision that it stood for. It symbolized the legacy of US-Soviet space cooperation, the promise of a post-Cold War world and a vision of space as the common inheritance of humanity. The ISS showed a generation of young people that outer space was a place for all of us, a place where every country could come together, no matter their squabbles and disagreements on Earth.
The International Space Station was always about more than that particular hunk of metal in low-Earth orbit.
That idealistic vision seems all but dead now, as a generation of international research in space across geopolitical lines gives way to commercialization and tribalism. The Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA will surely launch their own new missions into space after this saga is through, and when those spacecraft go up, they will be launching into a vastly different outer space, one that may eventually be visited more frequently by the world’s latest billionaire of the week and maybe even the US Space Force.
I cannot help but feel a deep sense of tragedy at this sign of the death of international cooperation in the face of our common challenges and new frontiers. After all, outer space is not the only realm where this 20th-century idealism seems to be dying. Take arms control. Bit by bit, the 21st century has watched the erosion of nuclear control measures like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, which the Trump administration scuttled in 2019. The steady pace of disarmament over the past few decades has stalled significantly, and most nuclear powers are now expanding their arsenals.
The spirit of international cooperation, though it may have lost some of its gleam in our more cynical times, is still the best expression in our modern age of what Catholic principles of solidarity look like, and it’s the vision of human fraternity that Pope Francis has spent his entire pontificate working to resuscitate. Francis seems to have been prophetic when he lamented in “Fratelli Tutti” that “[i]n today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia. What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference, born of deep disillusionment concealed behind a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat.”
Seen through the lens of that central problem—our lack of solidarity—so much of what Pope Francis is doing comes into view.
Seen through the lens of that central problem—our lack of solidarity—so much of what Pope Francis is doing comes into view. His work to negotiate the end of the US embargo against Cuba, his focus on environmental action, his refusal to “take sides” in the Russia-Ukraine War, his work to lift up non-European voices in the Curia, and so much more .They all come down to the same vision—a firm commitment to viewing the world as one family, in spite of and across political or cultural differences. The pope sees a world where international cooperation is fragmenting and is trying to offer a different path forward.
I am sure that if Pope Francis’ pontificate had an official playlist (it does have an unofficial one, by the way), “Russians,” by Sting, would be on it. A classic Cold War protest song, its lyrics bear a haunting relevance on our modern world: “We share the same biology/ regardless of ideology/ Believe me when I say to you/ I hope the Russians love their children too.”
The ISS, in all likelihood, is dead, and that should be a wake-up call for everyone committed to the vision of human solidarity for which it stood. There are still so many common challenges we all face—a global arms race, a climate crisis, the rise of a digital world and our own fragmenting sense of human solidarity.
Our century has to once again come up with answers to all of these problems and more. Are we going to solve those problems together, or are we going to let them splinter us further apart?