I was in kindergarten when I decided that I no longer wanted to be a stegosaurus when I grew up but an astrophysicist instead. Curiously, my grandmother was fine with the dino plan, but she stalled on the next zag in my career plans. It was then, in her kitchen on a small island Down East, that I first learned about the Cold War. Actually, I’m not sure how much I learned about the war; my only takeaway was that apparently I would need to speak Russian to be an astrophysicist. So I added that to my goals (somewhere after learning to tie my own shoes).

With the Cold War firmly in the rearview mirror, I struggled learning about it in school. It set the United States and the former Soviet Union as little more than two great adversaries. I learned about fears over nuclear weapons, espionage and proxy wars. I read about the Chautauqua Conferences, the Washington-Moscow hotline and the SALT agreements, but were these really exceptions? Sure, there was the Space Race, but through my astro studies I found that science formed pathways for collaboration and teamwork between the superpowers, none of which was reflected in my textbooks.

Public discourse surrounding the Space Race positions it as an extension of the Cold War. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first basketball-sized satellite, Sputnik, and the U.S. responded with Explorer four months later. The Soviets launched Laika, the U.S. launched Ham. After Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space, President Kennedy upped the ante with the launch of the Apollo program to the moon. While Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev amped up the country’s internal lunar program, its need was largely dissolved upon the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and the planting of the American flag. Had the United States won? The two sides needed each other, and the technological gains were immeasurable in impacting our daily lives. Was winning even the ultimate goal?

While Sputnik certainly ignited feelings of defeat among the American public and even with our country’s foreign allies, since-declassified documents suggest that President Eisenhower never really entered the race. As Sputnik beeped its way around the planet in the key of A-flat at 18,000 miles per hour, the president doubled down on a premise he outlined two years earlier: Outer space is for scientific inquiry, for peace.

1957-1958 was the International Geophysical Year. The International Geophysical Year overtook what was to be the third International Polar Year, a series that officially began in 1882 to study scientific phenomena too complex for any one nation to nail down. Spanning 11 scientific fields, the IGY was an 18-month period of intense collaboration of 67 countries, more than 70 existing national scientific organizations and nearly 30,000 scientists. From developing Spandex to commercial solar cells, from understanding Van Allen radiation belts to plate tectonics, the IGY was full of global scientific breakthroughs.

The U.S. had the capacity to beat the Soviets, and had satellite launches not been timed with the IGY, the U.S. may well have done so. In the 1950s, U.S. rocketry was spearheaded by Wernher von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency. ABMA had been testing a modified Redstone missile, the Jupiter-C, which had proven ability to reach orbit with payload more than a year ahead of Sputnik I (during testing, the newer fourth stage of the Jupiter-C, which would provide the additional ammunition necessary to safely reach orbit, was filled with sand to prevent accidental discharge).


Instead, while the Soviets were in the final phase of Sputnik, the U.S. administration redirected spaceflight away from ABMA to Project Vanguard, overseen by the scientific and civilian arm of the Naval Research Laboratory.

At a time when the threat of nuclear war was real and when satellites opened new fears over spying, the Eisenhower administration feared that launching a military missile into space could have ignited more than the Hydyne that would have propelled it into the exosphere. By stepping back, the U.S. took control of the dialogue. In exchange for the Soviets’ Sputnik, the U.S. could both get its surveillance satellites while also establishing space as a place for science, peace and collaboration. Ultimately, this formed the foundation of the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which stated exactly this 10 years later.

Outer space isn’t the only area of lasting U.S.-USSR détente during the International Geophysical Year that has led to the preservation of spaces for broader good. The first of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaties (1958) and the Antarctic Treaty (1959), for example, sought to codify spaces beyond any national jurisdiction.

As U.S.-Soviet tensions deepened further in the 1970s, both Nixon and Brezhnev looked further into areas of international space, both physical and metaphorical. To address water pollution following high-profile river fires in 1969 and 1970, the two states joined in Moscow to sign the so-called Environmental Bilateral. They developed a joint nuclear partnership and saw the Outer Space treaty blossom into the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Despite the global spread of proxy conflicts and threats on all seven continents during the Cold War, a thirst for knowledge and a concern for human good enabled the Western and Eastern blocs to transcend boundaries that had been reinforced by conventional politics and negotiations. Both sides understood the dire consequences of their militarism, and that a nuclear winter would yield total systems collapse from which neither would emerge unscathed.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen our global and local political boundaries breached. There was a deadly pandemic and Canadian wildfire smoke that darkened our skies. There were burst sewer lines that closed swaths of the coast to clamming and vector-borne diseases that caused record cases throughout the state.

At a time when they had little in common other than a fear of nuclear bombs, a diplomatic focus on science enabled the Americans and Soviets to form collaborations that channeled shared needs, which then percolated into other diplomatic processes. The next International Polar Year is not until 2032, but in the meantime, 2024 is a monumental year for the global climate, with more than 4 billion people eligible to vote in elections worldwide. Clean air may not top everyone’s immediate priorities, but a lack of it kills an estimated 7 million people per year. Voting on climate can make the world safer for all.

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