Here's an example of what the U.S. will be giving up when it retires the space shuttle fleet.
I found this photo of a handmade shuttle model on my Facebook page, posted by one of the amateur astronomy buffs I "friended" because of our shared interest in space exploration. It was made by the Iranian kids in the photo below for "Astronomy Day" at their school.
There was also a wide selection of astronomy images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope, apparently used by this Iranian teacher at the astronomy fair in just the same way that her U.S. counterparts use them in the classroom. The beautiful closeups from beyond Earth's atmosphere are naturals for inspiring a sense of wonder in young students.
Now, it didn't matter to these kids that the shuttle -- and the Hubble images -- were produced by what their government once called "the great Satan." Relations between the two governments haven't improved much in the intervening 30 years, but these photos show the shuttle and its accomplishments in space can transcend our differences.
Diplomats have been taking advantage of the universal sense of wonder at space accomplishments for more than a generation. At the height of the Cold War, NASA's Tom Stafford and the Soviet Union's Alexey Leonov - a pair of old fighter pilots turned space travellers - shook hands across the hatch of their docked Apollo and Soyuz capsules.
It took a while, but it's at least arguable that the famous greeting during what was quaintly called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project started the process that brought down the Iron Curtain, and put up the International Space Station.
Recently Yang Liwei, the People's Liberation Army fighter pilot who became China's first man in space in 2003, told an audience in Colorado that one of the first things he noticed from his Shenzhou capsule was the absence of borders on the Earth below. Yang wasn't the first space traveler to make that remark, yet it shows the diplomatic potential of space travel is still very much alive.
Yang's boss at the China Manned Space Engineering Office, Wang Wenbao, says China is ready to discuss common interfaces with NASA and the other space station partners that would enable it to dock Shenzhous there. Some of the station partners -- notably the European Space Agency -- are open to bringing China on board as a full partner in the orbiting laboratory.
At the moment the U.S. government is holding back, working its way through some very ticklish bilateral issues like arms sales to Taiwan before it endorses another handshake in space with a geopolitical competitor. It isn't an exaggeration to say the relations between the U.S. and China are strained.
Maybe the enthusiasm of these Iranian students can serve as a reminder of the enormous potential for Earthly progress embodied in space exploration. As they head for honored places in a few museums, that would be a fitting legacy for the trio of proud old birds known as Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour.