U.S., European Space Chiefs Urge Public To Look Past Russian Rhetoric

by

BERLIN — The heads of the U.S., European and German space agencies asked their publics to look past incendiary Russian government statements about ending the space station partnership to see the durable underlying value of the program.

In remarks here May 20 at the Berlin Air Show, these officials, without identifying Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin by name, sought to characterize his remarks as noise, and not a signal of Russian intentions.

“We are five partners — five member organizations — in the space station and no one person makes decisions for the station,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “It hasn’t happened in the five years I have been at NASA.”

Bolden conceded that Russian statements — it was Rogozin — that NASA consider trampolines instead of Russian Soyuz capsules as the sole means of U.S. station crews are not helpful.

“We’re going through a very difficult time right now, but if you talk to any of the leaders of the five member nations, we are consistent in our belief in the critical importance of the partnership in the international space station. We’re trying to keep our heads below the parapet right now. We would like not to be noticed.”

European Space Agency Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said that despite U.S. and European tensions with Russia about its incursion into Ukraine, the space agencies’ relationships continue as before.

“We are going to meet next week in Baikonur [the Russian-run spaceport in Kazakhstan] for the launch of Alexander Gerst, and we are going to meet in July for the launch of our ATV [cargo carrier] to the space station,” Dordain said. “The ATV docks to the Russian module at the station.

“The station is more than a laboratory for science,” Dordain said. “It is a laboratory for cooperation. To sustain six people in orbit, there are 6,000 people working on three continents. If they are not cooperating, the six guys up there are in trouble. We have no choice but to work together on a daily basis.”

In an unusual departure for an air show panel discussion, the agency chiefs and a large European space contractor debated how far space cooperation should go with nations that do not share the same cultural values. China and Russia were both mentioned.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said no one pretends that cooperation in space is tantamount to a full endorsement of a partner’s government.

Woerner said the U.S.-Russian space cooperation, highlighted by the 1975 rendezvous in space of U.S. Apollo and Russian Soyuz rockets, occurred at a time of Cold War tensions that were much more serious than today’s issues.

“We should not be so naïve as to say that whoever we cooperate with is a nice guy,” Woerner said. “We have to be cautious about what we do. There are ethical and political issues and we should consider aspects like intellectual property rights and even human rights. International cooperation in space can pave the way for more peace in the world, as it did in the past. But sometimes we have to be cautious — there is no contradiction in this.”

German industry officials have been criticized in the United States and in Europe for seeking to maintain their business dealings with Russia even at the price of seeming to turn a blind eye to the Ukrainian situation.

Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders took offense at this April 30 during an Atlantic Council debate, saying he has seen only two or three German businessmen doing this and these exceptions should not be used to tar all German industry.

“I’m a little bit old-fashioned,” Enders said. “When it comes to the preservation of international law, this has to have priority over business and corporate profits.”

Evert Dudok, a senior Airbus Defence and Space executive who heads the space policy arm of the German Aerospace Industries Association, BDLI, said May 20 that space policy is no exception.

“Our compliance norms are not necessarily the compliance norms of other countries,” Dudok said. “If we come to certain conclusions that culturally we are too far apart from another country, then we shall not cooperate.”

Addressing Russia specifically, Dudok said Airbus Defence and Space is trying “to keep the ball flat and not be too visible on topics like this.” 

“Political relationships have ups and downs and industrial relationships do not follow that speed of change — thank God. We are of course working with Russia, to take one example, on Eurockot, where we market a launcher with Russia,” he said.

Bolden said that while the U.S. Congress has NASA on a short leash with respect to dealings with China, that does not mean zero collaboration.

“We are discussing geodetics with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and our Earth Sciences Division,” Bolden said. “The idea is to persuade China of the importance of putting their data into the international data system so that everybody has access to it. We also partner in aeronautics, looking for an international collaboration on end-route air-traffic management.”

Dordain said ESA has two of its astronauts taking Chinese-language courses and will issue, with China’s space agency, a joint call for proposals on a science mission. ESA is also exchanging Earth observation data with China and discussing joint China-ESA experiments to be flown on the international space station, and on European use of China’s future space station.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes