Heads of the world’s leading space agencies take part in a special plenary session at IAC 2015 in Jerusalem, including (from right) NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and European Space Agency Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner. Credit: ESA/Franco Bonacina

JERUSALEM — The heads of the U.S. and European space agencies arrived at the 66th International Astronautical Congress here the week of Oct. 12 with opposite problems they were powerless to resolve.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was forced to confront and explain a reality — U.S. government policy barring most space cooperation with China — that he did not advocate and clearly does not like but cannot reverse, and that pursues him to each international venue he attends.

The China policy has the effect of a sack of dead fish on the dais with the NASA administrator any time he is outside the United States. At this point, most space industry officials know the situation but cannot help but asking: Charlie, what’s with the fish?

For European Space Agency Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the situation was very different. Instead of a reality he would prefer to avoid, Woerner has a dream — Moonvillage — that for the moment exists nowhere except in his imagination.

As the week went on, Woerner stepped up his advocacy for an international lunar colony that he called Moonvillage. The problem is that ESA delegations have given no hint of backing such a mission anytime soon.

When ESA directors give public addresses, they usually speak of programs or proposals that have been validated in some way by one or more of the agency’s 22 member states. It helps if this validation has come from one of the four nations — Germany, France, Italy and Britain — that finance the vast majority of ESA’s activities.

That is not the case with Woerner, who assumed his new post in July after being head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR. He told a press briefing that he insists on retaining his freedom to speak on things that concern him, regardless of whether they have any relationship to what ESA is actually doing. He is proposing a lunar colony as an idea that meets several goals for post-space station exploration.

“If someone has a better idea, that’s fine with me. Let them propose it,” Woerner said.

“I heard his remarks and I went back to our people for a search of the public record to see what ESA is doing,” said one U.S. government contractor. “We couldn’t find anything!”

There is in fact little to be found.

Moon nearside
“If someone has a better idea, that’s fine with me. Let them propose it,” ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner said of his Moonvillage concept. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

People tracking Bolden’s explanation on China have noticed a difference in the years since he took office in 2009. Early on, he offered the standard boilerplate: NASA is a servant of the U.S. Congress and follows congressional mandates.

More recently, he has sought, in word and body language, to convince his audiences that he understands the concerns of those who cannot imagine a global space exploration program without China.

This year, he went a step further and said the danger of the U.S. policy is not that China — which with the United States has arguably the world’s most active space program — will be left out, but rather the United States.

The U.S. government’s space policy on China, he said, was “temporary.”

Further, several U.S. partners in the International Space Station – notably ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos – have cooperative efforts with China. At some point, the United States will be the one that is cut off.

At a panel discussion of heads of space agencies here Oct. 12 — China, Russia, India, Europe, Japan and Israel as host nation — the head of the China National Space Administration, Xu Dazhe, said the world’s space community, including the U.S. and Chinese space communities, wanted the two nations to cooperate.

As long as the U.S. policy remains unchanged, there will be few opportunities to test whether Xu’s promise is solid.

“Let me make a quick statement, for the U.S., mainly,” Bolden said. “If you ask for a show of hands on this podium, there would be only one that does not go up as far as who is talking to the Chinese space agency. That would be mine.

“The reason I believe that where we are today is temporary is because of a practical statement: Everybody up here who has any hopes of a human spaceflight program is talking. They want to get their astronauts and cosmonauts and taikonauts flown. And they’ll go to whoever will fly their people. If we [at NASA] are not collaborating with everybody, we’ll be on the outside looking in.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.