Guest Blog: An American in International Space

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I should preface this blog by saying that I am both French and American. At an international space event recently, a guy chuckled and said, “Ha! Well, that’s an ‘interesting’ combination.” What a great euphemism! Apart from being “interesting,” it is also one of the funniest cultural mash-ups, as there is hardly a pair of countries that currently analyze (another euphemism, read: ironically make fun of) each other more than France and the U.S. All that said, after growing up in California I tend to approach life primarily as an American … with perhaps two key exceptions — gastronomy and the international space sector. Let’s focus on the latter.

Along with the privileges of a mixed background and the opportunity to live abroad, working in the international space sector has developed my perspective on the American space program in ways that my naïve, young mind didn’t anticipate when I took my current job in Vienna, Austria. After a year-and-a-half, I can pinpoint one pervasive, recurring impression of the American space sector in the international setting: on a practical level, the U.S. just doesn’t get it.

Technically, the U.S. continues by most subjective and objective assessments to be a leader in the international space sector. Apollo boosted the country to a healthy lead, and regardless of ups and downs characteristic of many government sponsored programs, the U.S. space program continues to inspire.

On an international political level (particularly in combination with the technical “big stick” the U.S. carries), the Americans also do well. Working for an international organization and trying to stay as politically neutral as possible, I can say that I have been impressed with the American representation abroad. The teams sent from various public and private organizations are smart and politically savvy. Especially after NASA’s recent and deliberate international outreach initiative, as well as the June 2010 American space policy that emphasizes international activity, the U.S. has become significantly more active in a relatively short amount of time.

However, at the working level where no speeches or grand gestures are covered by the press, the U.S. is not perceived well, and it’s not doing much to counter the impression. Allow me to provide three pieces of anecdotal evidence:

1.         The other week I was speaking with an Australian who was going over candidates for a space sector position open to all citizenships. He said, “I had this great woman apply. She had a degree from a prestigious school, solid work experience, and an eloquent cover letter, but … she’s American.” When I enquired cheekily, “What exactly does that imply?” He stated in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way: “She lacks the international and cultural sensitivities that are crucial and necessary for this setting.”

2.         At another space event, I had a lively conversation with an Englishman who had spent many years working in the U.S. First, we talked about space. Then, we talked about sports. He said to me, “It can be very difficult working with you Americans. Either you win the gold medal or you don’t win.” Of course, at this point, we weren’t talking about sports anymore.

3.         Lastly, just this past July, I was in South Korea talking about space technology development at an international conference for university students at the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. It was unsurprisingly dominated by Asian delegates. For my part, I was fascinated by the interaction between the Chinese and the South Korean students. At the same time, they were interested in my American accent and my perspective on the topic. Generally, though, they were apparently intrigued at just my presence, itself.

But, really, who cares? Well, the U.S. should.

Regardless of whether the U.S. keeps its technical space lead or not (it should not be taken for granted), space is a globalizing sector. The secret is out — space applications are valuable to modern, integral infrastructure. According to the Space Foundation, “by the end of 2009, at least 49 countries had deployed civil satellites, either on their own or in cooperation with other nations, and more than 115 countries owned at least a share in an operating satellite. During the next five years, more than 100 missions into space are planned by civilian space agencies from more than 15 nations.”

It is a fact that the U.S. will be meeting more countries in space. It isn’t the case that the U.S. should or will be working directly with all of these countries. But practically, the American industry needs to be more exposed to the emerging international space sector. Full comprehension and optimization of one’s relative standing is not achieved without understanding the environment. This applies to people in all levels of the space sector.

How can the U.S. start to improve?

The answer is that it requires a bottom-up effort. Actionable points of commencement: Send more people to more international conferences and to work on projects in other countries. American delegates will learn more, faster when they are thrown into nonindigenous settings to sink or swim. So let’s send people abroad. Unfortunately, thanks to the economic climate, American organizations are freezing or cutting their international travel budgets just as the need for international engagement is greatest. Take for example the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) held in September in Prague. My colleagues in all levels and areas of the American space sector (many coming from Washington) found it more difficult to travel from the U.S. to Europe in 2010, than from the U.S. to Asia in 2009, when the financial crisis was in full swing.

Sending Americans to work on projects abroad would also be beneficial.  As an example, I have friends from the United Arab Emirates that are living in South Korea and working on building satellites with the Koreans. They have told me it has been one of the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences of their careers. It has changed their understanding of the scope of the space sector. I’m sure if you spoke to the NASA scientists that were tasked to help the Chilean mine rescue mission, they would say exactly the same thing.

Convinced that the U.S. work force’s international sensitivity is valuable? Then I’ll go one step further and say that one of the best investments that the American space sector can make is to send people to work in international space settings early in their careers. These international experiences will prove to have strong, long-lasting, and valuable impacts on the next generation of American space leaders. In today’s increasingly globalizing spacescape, sending these young people abroad is a relatively cheap investment in the practical development of the U.S. space work force and its intellectual capital.

I’m not advocating directly for U.S. space collaboration with every country in the world that receives satellite television. But by fostering an international approach to the rapidly globalizing space sector from both the top down and the bottom up, the U.S. will continue to be one of the most relevant nations in space for years to come.

 

The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the Space Generation Advisory Council.