The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) was founded in 1960 with a mission to promote the peaceful utilization and exploration of space for scientific purposes, but the organization’s membership and goals have grown dramatically over the years. Since 1982, when the IAA decided to open its doors to a broader cross section of the space community, its membership has grown from 300 to nearly 1,700 people representing 80 countries and a wide range of disciplines that include not only the traditional hard sciences but also the economics and social science of space.
Today the IAA’s activities include organizing conferences — often in locations that one might not expect — designed to promote cooperation in space and publishing scientific studies on space-related topics. Studies currently under way within various IAA commissions range from the next steps in human exploration to orbital debris mitigation.
The organization is preparing to mark its 50th anniversary with a Nov. 17 summit in Washington of the heads of the world’s leading space agencies. The summit is expected to help map out a general direction and strategy for cooperative space activity in four main areas: human spaceflight, climate change monitoring, disaster management and robotic space exploration.
Jean Michel Contant, the IAA’s secretary general, strongly believes that diversity of international participation is a key ingredient of any space science endeavor, whether in human exploration or Earth observation. He’s not just talking about countries with robust space programs such as India and China — where the IAA now has branch offices — but countries in places like Africa that have no independent space capabilities to speak of. These countries, Contant says, are a great source of fresh ideas and untapped scientific talent.
Contant, an engineer by training who is president and chief executive of Advanced Space Technologies Services of Paris, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What are your main goals for the upcoming Heads of Space Agencies summit in Washington?
We would really like to initiate a new dialogue with an unprecedented number of country participants, fully recognized as space agencies, to engage in discussion for exploring how some of the global problems could be solved by future cooperation in areas such as climate monitoring and disaster management. The smaller countries are less interested in human spaceflight than climate change, so many of the emerging space countries are having their main focus on the two items: climate change and disaster.
Are climate change and disaster management the most pressing items on the global civil space agenda?
Today, yes. But if those discussions occur, I’m very confident that the number of subjects may enlarge. When we put together in a summit countries that never talked before, they will bring to the table something that we are not expecting necessarily.
What do you do to engage a greater number of developing countries in space activity?
There are major conferences and venues for meetings but there is still a language barrier and a travel and economic barrier. … I think we have to offer meetings at their place, in their languages eventually, to capture the best experts and the best brains and extract from that better interaction. But we cannot do it if we don’t have the support of the main players, the main agencies. We want also the main agencies to visit the small countries with us on the occasion of meetings. And there might be workshops and conferences not necessarily run by IAA — it could be by any other body.
What sorts of political barriers do you face in trying to facilitate more international cooperation?
There is clearly trust, and today there is still a lot of reticence. However, I anticipate that reticence with the Chinese is going to slowly be reduced, because this is one of the key examples. This country is seeking international recognition, similar to what they did for the 2008 Olympic Games. They want to host and after some barrier is erased like language or understanding the process of meetings, the process of releasing information, I think they will accept the rules. And they are gradually moving in this direction.
Should China and India be invited to participate in the international space station program?
When you prevent people from doing cooperation it usually creates more problems or simply new competition. Today China is working on its own station; India is working on man rating its launcher and preparing its own station, and this is not cooperation. They probably will do it to show they can do it. But ultimately it is very important to continue to work to bring those two countries to the international space station. I strongly encourage and invite space station agencies to put that on the table. That would be an excellent revitalization of cooperation, and it would continue to bring experience for the future. If we one day prepare a program to Mars with 30 countries, what a problem. So we need to continue with the space station to capture all the experience of cooperation.
Have space exploration missions reached such a level of complexity and cost that new missions that truly expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge are beyond the means of any one nation?
I absolutely share this view. We are entering an era of not only enlarging the number of players but enlarging multinational design, which is one of the key aspects that will bring breakthroughs. Indeed, if you take the best technology of many nations then you can build something that never existed.
Does cooperation in space have benefits that extend beyond a given program?
Space has had a very special place in our society since the beginning of the space race and so on. I really think that if we have cooperation in which scientists of Africa are involved and becoming players, I really think that this would impact deeply the society in those countries.
Could cooperation in space be a catalyst for better relations between the United States and China?
Certainly. And this is why I try to advocate that. I’ve been to China many times and we chose to have a branch there. This is a need for recognition. I’m not innocent. There are a lot of challenges. But the key is that those problems can be solved and be worked. But they are suspicious. Everybody speaks of international cooperation but there is not enough. And when we find cooperation, this is cooperation with a lot of suspicion. What I’m saying is if we clearly develop what we would like to do, there will be a strong impact in the relations between, for instance, the United States and China. First in space but on the other hand in other areas because those are places where the country’s leadership wants to put their image at the highest values. Their leaders care about space.
What, if anything, is IAA doing to raise awareness of and combat the growing orbital debris problem?
One of the initial roles of IAA was raising awareness of the problem; we produced our first position paper on orbital debris one year before the United Nations Interagency Space Debris Coordination Committee was created. We are fortunate that this was now taken by agencies and at a good level of the United Nations. Now we are coming to a much broader, closer consensus on the rules, and there are a lot of rules that are being accepted. So now what’s next? Next is that there are countries that we can still help to influence positively. One of them is China. China conducted a test a few years ago that created major debris, but today I can tell you China is talking about debris reduction. China is aware of it and working on it, and I trust the Chinese for that. The Chinese are back on this effort, and IAA will help.