VALENCIA, Spain — E xpansive ideas about international cooperation in lunar and Mars exploration — a common theme at gatherings of space scientists — were confronted by unusually public expressions of realpolitik here as space agency officials insisted on the primacy of politics, technology transfer concerns and their own national interests.
Time and again during the 57th International Astronautical Congress, held here Oct. 2-6, appeals for a coordinated global effort to explore space beyond low Earth orbit were checked by warnings that, in some ways, the major spacefaring nations are as distrustful of each other today as they were 20 years ago.
The case for cooperation was perhaps best expressed by Virendra Jha, the Canadian Space Agency’s vice president for science and technology. Jha said space exploration should be modeled on the international Group on Earth Observations (GEO), a gathering of more than 60 nations that has agreed to coordinate investment in future observation satellites for the benefit of all. “GEO is a good model, a system of systems, as we think about an international global exploration strategy,” Jha said.
B.N. Suresh, director of the Indian Space Research Organization’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, said India has already demonstrated its openness by inviting U.S., European and Bulgarian instruments on India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter.
Daniel Sacotte, director of exploration at the European Space Agency (), agreed that a full-scale space exploration effort is beyond the means of any single nation. But Sacotte also said Europe does not want to be dependent on the United States or any other nation as it develops its exploration agenda.
“We will try not to have a strong dependence on anyone else,” Sacotte said. “That is a first priority. We also recognize that partners will not all have the same rights. The major players cannot allow [their programs] to be blocked by others.”
Europe is studying whether to join Russia and perhaps Japan in the development of a new crew-transport vehicle that could serve the international space station and as well as a long-term exploration program. How to avoid a mutual dependence with Russia in this program is a question that ESA officials as yet cannot answer.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, in an unusually blunt speech delivered Oct. 3, left no doubt about the current U.S. position. Anyone thinking that a NASA administrator fresh from his first visit to China would sing the praises of a one-for-all global space exploration effort was quickly set straight.
Griffin said that as he thinks about a long-term space exploration effort, he wonders what language future planetary explorers will speak, and whether they will respect values including property rights that not all nations subscribe to today.
More immediately, a partnership that requires intimate sharing of high technology, as would be the case in any multilateral space exploration effort, will not pass muster with the United States, Griffin said.
“The United States is firmly committed to ensuring that certain key technologies, which we possess and some others do not, not be used against our allies,” Griffin said, expressing a long-held U.S. government view that nonetheless is rarely served up at meetings like the one here.
“That priority is higher for us than partnership in various space endeavors, and this fact must be understood and carefully considered by the parties involved in any putative collaboration.”
After acknowledging the bluntness of his statement, Griffin immediately turned to financial considerations to say that, like technology, the U.S. has no intention of transferring funds to fuel other nations’ exploration programs.
Partnerships, he said, “work best when conducted on a ‘no exchange of funds’ basis. I must admit this view is not universally shared. On many occasions … I have been asked about opportun i ties for ‘partnership’ when what is really being sought is American investment in the aerospace industries of other nations.
“I must be clear on this: ‘Partnership’ for us is not a synonym for ‘helping NASA to spend its money.’” One European government official said he was stunned by Griffin’s tone, even if U.S. government policy on these matters is a matter of record.
“The guy comes back from China, and the first thing he says is that the space station is a human achievement superior to The Great Wall of China? I’m not sure this advances things,” this official said.
In fact Griffin’s written text says the station is “the greatest construction project in the history of humankind, rivaling the pyramids of Egypt, the Suez and Panama canals, or the Great Wall of China.”
Tone aside, it is not clear how far U.S. policy differs from those carried out in Russia, China or India.
European officials say Russia has been reluctant to share technologies on a future crew-transport vehicle despite the Russian request that Europe join the project .
India, despite its public statements of openness on exploration, continues to refuse to fully contribute its weather-satellite data to the international community represented by the World Meteorological Organization out of concerns that Pakistan might use it.
Chinese policy on international cooperation is changing with the Chinese economy, but Chinese officials have been silent participants at meetings of the major spacefaring nations crafting a Global Exploration Strategy, according to participants from Europe and the United States.
“You can’t say they’re out, and you can’t say they’re in,” one participant said of China.
Zhang Wei, director-general of the China National Space Administration’s department of foreign affairs, said Oct. 3 that China is undecided on whether it should become an active partner in the effort. “It’s too soon to say anything definitively,” Zhang said.
The 14 nations assembling the Global Exploration Strategy are scheduled to meet again in December in Houston with a view of producing an exploration strategy document in the coming months.
Doug Cooke, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said the document being prepared will steer clear of topics like technology transfer regulations and other hurdles. “If we tried to include all these issues we would never be able to produce the document,” Cooke said.