Eilene Galloway — “the mother of space law and policy” — would be pleased with President Obama’s new national space policy and its emphasis on international cooperation. For more than 50 years, Mrs. Galloway, who played a key role in drafting the 1958 NASA Act and the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty and establishing the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, advocated for the importance of international cooperation in space.* The new policy’s focus on international cooperation should be no surprise. The White House-appointed Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Committee — a.k.a. the Augustine Committee — last year recommended revamping the nation’s approach to the human exploration of space by expanding international cooperation and increasing reliance on commercial service providers.
In covering the Augustine Committee’s report, the mainstream media focused disproportionately on potential contributions of so-called commercial space companies and largely buried or bypassed the potential of expanded international cooperation. While the media foregrounded the “endorsement” (as a Washington Post editorial put it) of the commercial space option, the Committee’s report actually foregrounded the importance of international cooperation.
On page 1 of its 12-page summary report, the Augustine Committee stated: “First, space exploration has become a global enterprise. … [E]ngaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise. Second, there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry,” and an exploration program designed “to provide opportunities to this industry [has] the potential — not without risk” — to reduce government costs.”
By my reading, the Committee said the future of U.S. space exploration depends on, first, expanding international cooperation and, second, increasing opportunities for commercial space industry participation. President Obama’s space policy recapitulates this assessment.
Bush administration policies and appointees turned off, and in some cases turned away, the U.S. space program’s existing and prospective partners in space exploration. Historically, NASA has taken the position that it must be “the leader” in any cooperative endeavors, and this stance has rubbed partners the wrong way.
Meanwhile, in the real world, global space exploration activity has been stepping up by the day, with Brazil, China, India and Japan pursuing aggressive space programs. North and South Korea and even Romania are among many other nations attempting to put rockets into space and otherwise developing aerospace expertise. At the same time, the global economy is in the pits, and no nation has the money to fund a full-blown space exploration program on its own. Why not cooperate? The new national space policy is evidence of the president’s pragmatism.
Since President Obama took office, NASA has been renewing and expanding existing cooperative agreements, initiating new ones and cultivating relations with prospective new partners.
“Whatever our future plans are,” said NASA Administrator Charliein an August 19, 2009, speech in Huntsville, Ala, “we have a better chance of success if we work with our partners, than if we go it alone.”
NASA Deputy Administrator Loritold a gathering in Washington on May 11, 2010, that since its inception in 1958, NASA has pursued international cooperation via “more than 3,000 agreements with over 100 nations or international organizations.” Looking beyond existing cooperative initiatives with “traditional” partners, Garver said, “we are seeking to expand and deepen our ‘global reach,’ to find mutually beneficial activities with nontraditional partners that can be implemented at a lower cost, yet have a high-impact for both the potential partners and NASA.”
On May 24, Bolden addressed prospects for NASA cooperation with China at a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations: “There are some members of Congress who really think there is no way in the world, ever, that … that’s a partnership that we should strike. I just happen to disagree, respectfully disagree.”
In a June 15 speech at American University in Cairo, Bolden told his Egyptian audience, “International cooperation is an intrinsic and essential aspect of the exploration of space [and] the basis for meaningful cooperation between our two countries, in science, and, in particular, in space activities, already exists.”
Following President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world last year, Bolden said, the White House asked NASA to expand on its cooperative activities with traditional partners “by reaching out to ‘non-traditional’ partners and strengthening our cooperation in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and in particular in Muslim-majority nations. NASA has embraced this charge. … NASA already has 39 active agreements in 30 dominantly Muslim countries.”
Noting that “international cooperation has always been a basic principle of NASA’s Mission,” Bolden said “there are no boundaries to where our cooperation can take us in the long run.”
Until now, U.S. space policy rhetoric has persistently conveyed the idea that space exploration is a quintessentially American enterprise. This rhetoric historically has reinforced a broader national ideology of American exceptionalism, a belief system that is potentially dangerous in today’s global cultural environment. This ideology asserts that the United States is and must remain “Number One” in the world community, playing the role of political, economic, scientific, technological and moral leader. That is, this nation is and must be exceptional. The ideas of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise and rugged individualism have been prominent in the American national narrative, which has constructed and maintained an ideology of “Americanism” — what it means to be American, and what America is meant to be, and do. The U.S. civilian space program has, to date, played a role in sustaining this ideology. Now, at last, we’re seeing an ideological shift for the better.
At a time when space exploration is becoming increasingly international, multinational, and transnational the president’s new space policy and the actions of his appointees are reconfiguring the U.S. leadership role in global space exploration. It’s about time.