Common Exploration Plan will be Slow in the Making

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The world’s principal space-faring nations, which have spent the past three years talking about a common exploration strategy, are committed to producing, by June, a document setting out specific measures to enable an international program to take shape, space agency representatives said Sept. 30.

Addressing the 61st International Astronautical Congress, members of the 14-agency International Space Exploration Coordinating Group (ISECG) reported little concrete results from their three years’ labors.

They stressed that the mere fact the space agencies of the United States, China, Russia, India, Europe, Japan, South Korea and others are able to talk about exploration strategy with a view to coordinating efforts should be seen as a signal achievement.

In one of the few specific examples of what the group’s work could do, a Canadian official said the ISECG roadmap for a lunar-exploration program was used to shape the Canadian government’s recent decision to invest some $100 million over three years with a focus on robotic technologies.

Gilles Leclerc, director-general for space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, said the ISECG work on lunar exploration has helped Canada to position itself as “a niche player” in future space exploration missions.

Other examples of the ISECG work’s effects on member agencies’ plans were not forthcoming.

One official said that while the group’s Global Exploration Strategy was published, with considerable fanfare, in May 2007, it was not until June of this year that a meeting of senior-level officials of the member agencies was held. A second meeting is scheduled for November.

A Global Exploration Roadmap scheduled for publication next June should include specific steps to guide future exploration efforts without reducing each nation’s autonomy, officials said. The roadmap should include elements such as common interfaces for equipment so that joint missions are made easier.

The group has made the international space station a clearer focus of some of its work now that it seems clear the station’s operations will be extended by at least five years, to 2020. But several ISECG members, notably including China and India, are not part of the space station partnership. Incorporating either nation into the space station will be complicated and will not happen overnight, officials from space station partner nations have said.

Several ISECG members in the past have expressed concerns that Russia, India and China have not been as active as hoped in the group’s deliberations.

Douglas R. Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said he was not overly concerned about this. “I think that will come,” he said of these nations’ participation in the discussion. “I do envisage their further participation in the work.”

Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, managing director for lunar and planetary exploration at Japan’s space agency, JAXA, recalled that it took years for the current space station partnership to find its footing. “It took five or six years to sort out ideas,” Hasegawa said, adding that the ISECG thus far should be viewed as “a soft contact … still at a conceptual phase, that offers a good chance to reduce misunderstanding” among nations planning their own space exploration efforts.

Eun-sup Sim, director of space applications and future technologies at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, which is South Korea’s space agency, urged the group to think small as well as big so that nations without multibillion-dollar space budgets can find their place in whatever plans are approved.

“It would be more useful to have smaller-scale efforts incorporated into the plan,” he said.