Technology & Science

Space isn't the place for international politics: Bob McDonald

The Canadian government has refused visas to the heads of the Russian and Chinese space agencies to attend an international space conference being held in Toronto this week. It contravenes the multinational partnerships that have been a hallmark of the space program, writes Bob McDonald.

Russian, Chinese delegates effectively banned from global space conference

In space, no one cares about your political stripes, says Bob McDonald. (Oleg Artemyev/Twitter)
The Canadian government has refused visas  to the heads of the Russian and Chinese space agencies to attend an international space conference being held in Toronto this week. It directly contravenes the multinational partnerships that have been a hallmark of the space program.

In space, there are no borders. The International Space Station, by its very name, is a collaborative effort between Russia, the U.S., the European Union, Japan and Canada. At the moment, it has a crew of three Russians, two Americans and a German. And attached to the outside of the orbiting laboratory, there are currently five spacecraft: three Russian, one American and one European.

And, of course, Canada’s own Chris Hadfield recently commanded the station. The whole complex has been a mini United Nations of space since its inception.

Meanwhile, India’s first Mars mission just arrived on the Red Planet and they are sharing their data with NASA.

The spirit of cooperation?

Everyone who travels to space looks down on Earth and sees it as a single planet with no artificial lines drawn across it to define ownership. That borderless view is one of the most important messages to come from space exploration; we are all one species, living on a shared planet.

Too bad the same perspective doesn’t apply on the ground. Earthbound politics are interfering with international partners who simply want to gather to discuss future plans.

Canada has been an active member in the space community from the very beginning, providing satellites, scientific instruments, expertise and astronauts. It is totally appropriate that we are hosting the largest international space conference in Toronto - but it is against the spirit of cooperation to ban certain members from attending.

The Canadian government's refusal to grant visas is most likely a reaction to Russia’s activity in Crimea and human rights issues in China. Sadly, the space program has nothing to do with either of those issues, but space exploration is a highly visible pawn that can be used to make a political statement.

The case is most poignant for one of the banned delegates, Sergei Krikalev, head of the Russian Cosmonaut Training Center outside Moscow. He has spent more time in space than any other human (803 days) and is also known as the last Soviet cosmonaut.

In 1991, during his second flight aboard the former Russian Space Station Mir, the Soviet Union collapsed. After three months in space, there was no money to bring Krikalev down. He stayed up there for another three months, which he described as the equivalent to running a marathon, reaching the finishing line, then being told to turn around and run it again.

He has the distinction of being the only person to have left Earth as a Soviet citizen and returned a Russian.

Political barrier

Later, Krikalev became the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on an American space shuttle, then worked at NASA mission control in Houston.

During his time in space, Krikalev circled the Earth more than 12,000 times. Now, he can’t get from Russia to Canada because of politics.

Science, whether it’s about space or not, is a community effort that knows no borders. That’s how humanity learns about nature and our place in it. Of course, it is affected by politics, mostly when it comes to funding. But it’s one of the few institutions left that shows how people of different nationalities, colour, genders, political or religious beliefs become unified to accomplish a common goal.

We should let them get on with their work and keep the politics out of it.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.