Journalists Julia Barton and Charles Maynes uncover a little-known chapter in US-Russian relations in Radiotopia’s Showcase series, “Spacebridge”
Imagine floating weightless out in space, tethered to a spacecraft in low orbit, looking down on Earth. Swirls of blue and green and white contrast with the vast and unfathomable emptiness beyond. The journey around the planet takes about ninety minutes, and with each revolution, familiar points on the globe blur into long stretches of land and sea with no recognizable markers.
Astronaut Rusty Schweickart recounts this experience from his 1969 Apollo 9 mission in his essay “No Frames, No Boundaries”:
You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are — hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, “Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”
This moment of realization — a “metaphysical experience” according to Schweickart — went on to inspire an unlikely movement, one that played a meaningful role in the easing of Cold War tensions, and ultimately, contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
It was an experiment in citizen diplomacy whose main events acquired the very 80s name of “spacebridge.” And while they’ve become something of an historical and technological curiosity, spacebridges represented a paradigm shift in how we communicate as a global society. To tell the story of this era is to once again prove truth is always stranger than fiction.
Journalists Julia Barton and Charles Maynes reconstruct this story in Spacebridge, the 4-part podcast premiering on March 1 as part of Radiotopia’s “Showcase.” The Spacebridge broadcasts were an early form of videoconferencing using satellite technology to link up citizens in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Kermit the Frog appeared in one event; choirs dueted on another; and Phil Donahue later famously hosted a series of sessions with his Russian talk show host counterpart, Vladimir Pozner.
Barton and Maynes, both of whom had vague recollections of events during their childhoods in the US, found themselves being reintroduced to the Spacebridge concept during their time spent reporting from Russia in the early aughts. The events have been largely forgotten in the United States, but remain an enduring cultural force in the U.S.S.R. It’s estimated that over 150 million Soviets watched the interactive programs on state television in the 1980s, intrigued at the opportunity to see how regular Americans looked and sounded, and how they perceived the U.S.S.R. Barton wrote an article in 2014 for The Atlantic piecing together the technology behind the satellite and computer link-ups. Then she and Maynes connected through their common curiosity in the improbable story, and they began to peel back the strange origins of spacebridges and their reverberations in our culture today.
It took just over a decade, but Rusty Schweickart’s stellar epiphany was the seed that bloomed into the first spacebridge in the early ’80s. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached a boiling point with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics in response, and the rise of hard-liner Ronald Reagan, who famously referred to the Soviet superpower as “the evil empire.” In California, meanwhile, a motley crew of astronauts, early Silicon Valley techies, ESP practitioners, and rock festival-goers concocted the idea to use advanced communications satellites to bring together ordinary citizens from both countries in a live forum to dampen down the rhetoric.
On September 5th, 1982, their first exchange went live, and with it their dream that our common humanity would change the course of history. If we could just make a connection with regular folks halfway around the globe, ask each other some questions and share our stories, we could save our countries from the geopolitical forces that are pushing us to the brink of nuclear war. The pioneers of the movement promoted transcendentalism and the ideal of “untapped human potential;” they envisioned technology unlocking within each of us a new wave of understanding and peace.
This deep-rooted belief in the inherent good of common folk fueled dozens of these tele-links and an ensuing citizen diplomacy movement over the course of the following decade. Relations between the countries calmed, and moderate forces in the U.S.S.R. began pushing for more openness, or glasnost. At the same time, the early Internet was developing, promoted by many spacebridge participants. The entire idea of horizontal communication — the massive, many-to-many discourse across borders — took hold. A couple decades on, we’ve connected globally beyond our wildest imaginations.
The question that arises then from Spacebridge is somewhat disconcerting: we’ve realized the ultra-connected interlinked world that was the dream of Rusty Schweickart and the pioneers of the US-Soviet Spacebridges. So why hasn’t our common good and human decency fully expressed itself and led us to the promised land?
Today, the talk of “untapped human potential” is pretty much absent. (Instead, we’ve become consumed with the possibility of extra-human, AI technology enhancing our capabilities.) Cyber-warfare, open hostility on social media, and disinformation campaigns from within and beyond our borders have conspired to undermine our faith in technology and society. Newly defined enemy camps in Washington and Moscow once again raise the specter of a nuclear arms race 2.0.
So the opportunity to travel back in time a bit — to a time of both greater imminent threat and greater inherent optimism — is not just insightful but essential. Spacebridge is far more than a curiosity. It’s a glimpse into a worldview that could point the way forward. And much like the high-pitched tenor of 1980s international relations, our global conversation today could benefit from a hard reset.
(Reposted from my article on Medium for PRX/Radiotopia)