International Cooperation in the Next Great Era of Space Exploration

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One day in the not too distant future people around the world will be able to look up at the night sky and see the glimmering lights of a research station on the Moon. At this research station, pioneering astronauts from many nations will be learning how to extract useful resources such as oxygen from the lunar soil. Also, we look forward to teams operating for the first time on the back side of the M oon, deploying small antennae to form the largest radio telescope ever built, free of radio noise from Earth.

Lunar explorers also will be engaged in geological exploration, finally establishing the origins of our Earth-Moon system. And elsewhere, other astronauts will be readying a 500-ton spaceship for mankind’s first voyage to Mars.

This is the sort of international cooperation we had in mind when nearly two years ago President Bush stated the United States will “invite other nations to share the challenges and opportunities of this new era of discovery.”

The president’s offer recognized that America’s space efforts have long benefited from international cooperation. Today, 29 of NASA’s 53 ongoing planetary, astronomy and Earth-observing satellite and spacecraft missions include international participation, with NASA involved in 13 operating science missions led by our international partners. Of course the international space station, now entering its sixth year of human occupancy, continues to demonstrate that nations can work together to conduct large, complex tasks in space.

Now that NASA is working to develop a specific exploration systems architecture to enable lunar, martian and near-Earth asteroid exploration, the opportunities for productive international partnerships at these exciting venues are coming into greater focus.

These opportunities were the subject of remarks I gave before the International Astronautical Congress in Fukuoka, Japan, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Following these talks I was encouraged by the interest foreign space officials have in discussing new partnerships based on common exploration objectives.

NASA’s plan to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle, the associated crew launch vehicle, and later a heavy-lift vehicle, addresses the fact that, by far the biggest “barrier to entry” for lunar and Mars exploration will be the size and cost of the transportation systems required to take people beyond Earth orbit. This is the key technology for space exploration, one that the United States, in my opinion, needs to maintain its position of leadership in space.

While developing these enabling systems is obviously the long pole in the tent, we should also remember that the real excitement ahead lies not in the trip, but in the opportunity for discovery. Our plan for renewed lunar exploration, for example, anticipates the United States carrying international crews to the Moon on the new “interplanetary highway” that we develop, where they can work on cooperative goals at research stations of international design and construction, possibly in much the same fashion as occurs in Antarctica today.

Not only will governments of other countries be involved in the effort, but private enterprise throughout the world will as well. In the near future, opportunities for constructive collaboration between NASA and international and commercial partners could include:

  • Delivering supplies to the international space station;
  • Lunar robotic missions that will support eventual landings and surface operations;
  • Cooperation on lunar surface systems and infrastructure such as habitats, power and science facilities, rovers, fuel depots, communications and navigation systems, in situ resource utilization equipment and backup life-support systems.
  • Activities to set the stage for future martian exploration.

As a next step NASA will continue to engage other nations on a bilateral and multilateral basis in serious discussions about partnership opportunities. In the interim, we would like to see more progress on scientific data-sharing agreements between those countries that have under way, or are planning, missions to map lunar resources and identify potential landing sites for future explorers.

Also, we will continue to promote opportunities in our space exploration work for international commercial providers. At NASA’s recent Industry Day briefing, potential contractors for the Crew Exploration Vehicle and international space station crew transfer and cargo resupply services learned how U.S. industry teams bidding on these procurements may choose to tap the capabilities of international aerospace firms on their teams, consistent with existing U.S. law and policy.

We also hope U.S. industry will have opportunities to contribute to exploration systems developed by our international partners. Where commercial providers are concerned, the market will be the best mechanism to decide the outcome. Government programs should not be used to pick winners, but to reward them.

NASA has developed plans with the understanding that 21st century space exploration activities cannot be borne by one nation alone. Once we make key investments in space infrastructure, international cooperation and the ingenuity of the private sector will be essential in realizing the full potential of mankind’s quest to pioneer the space frontier. This proposed approach, we believe, is one that promises to spur commerce, advance scientific knowledge and expand humanity’s exploration horizons in dramatic ways in the coming decades.

Michael Griffin is the NASA Administrator.