Istanbul Congress Center
The Istanbul Congress Center was to be the site of the COSPAR Scientific Assembly, a week-long conference starting July 30, before COSPAR cancelled the event July 18. Credit: ICC

ORLANDO — Organizers of a major space conference that was set to start in less than two weeks in Istanbul said July 18 they were cancelling the event after an attempted coup of the Turkish government by its military.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has planned to open its biannual Scientific Assembly on July 30 in Istanbul, but said a July 15 coup attempt and resulting instability in the government now made the event infeasible.

“The most recent events in Istanbul, involving a coup from a faction of the national army against the Turkish government on 15 July, require us to cancel the 41st COSPAR Assembly,” said COSPAR President Len Fisk in a statement posted on the conference website July 18. “This is an unprecedented situation with profound consequences, the sources of which are far beyond the responsibilities of our Turkish partners or our own organization.”

Elements of the Turkish military attempted to seize power late July 15, blocking bridges and taking over airports. Aircraft also bombed government buildings in the capital of Ankara, including the parliament. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put down the coup, but with reports of more than 200 dead and several thousand arrested.

However, the situation in Turkey remains unsettled. The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning July 16, advising U.S. citizens to reconsider travel plans to Turkey. The Federal Aviation Administration has also temporarily banned passenger flights between the U.S. and Turkey, regardless of airline.

The conference, which traditionally attracts several thousand people to discuss space science and exploration topics, was already facing difficulties prior to the coup attempt. On June 21, NASA Headquarters issued a memo informing civil servants and contractors that the agency would not sponsor their travel to attend the conference. Officials cited an earlier State Department travel advisory that warned of “increased threats from terrorist groups” in the country.

One week later, a terrorist attack at Istanbul’s main airport killed more than 40 people. COSPAR officials decided to continue with plans for the conference, even while recognizing that the attack, and NASA’s earlier decision, would affect attendance.

“Clearly the program will be affected and sessions modified to varying degrees,” COSPAR said in a statement on the conference web site shortly after the airport attack. “Remote presentation is being investigated.”

Those alternatives are no longer feasible, COSPAR concluded. “Up to now we have been trying to maintain this event with its high scientific level and international character, in close coordination with our Turkish partners,” Fisk said in the statement. “But now, that is no longer possible.”

Fisk said in the statement that COSPAR would work with the local organizing committee to minimize the financial effect the cancellation would have on them, and also help attendees be reimbursed for registration fees and hotel bookings they had already paid.

COSPAR has been hosting the Scientific Assembly, its largest conference, since 1958. The conferences were held annually through 1980, and since then on a biannual basis. This is the first time COSPAR has cancelled a Scientific Assembly. The next such conference is scheduled for 2018 in Pasadena, California.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...