Mistrust Dilutes Goodwill at Global Space Exploration Conference

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PARIS — An Oct. 21 conference of the world’s spacefaring nations to discuss space exploration featured a heavy dose of good feelings but also highlighted the mistrust that will slow the effort: Germany’s suspicions of France, France’s fear of being dominated by the United States, Russia’s distrust of long-term U.S. government policy, the U.S. distaste for new international bureaucracies and many governments’ refusal to start multibillion-dollar investments.

Organized by the European Union, of which Belgium holds the six-month rotating presidency, the second International Conference on Space Exploration in Brussels, Belgium, confirmed the results of the first conference, held in Prague, Czech Republic, a year ago: It is difficult to discuss a space exploration strategy in the absence of one.

The meeting ended with an agreement to meet in Italy in 2011 to pursue discussions, and to consider the creation of a group of experts to guide the effort.

But alongside the statements that space exploration is of necessity a global enterprise calling for global cooperation, individual governments used the conference to raise less-noble issues that lurk beneath the surface.

Peter Hintze, state secretary in the German Ministry of Economics, which leads German space policy, said Germany wanted Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket to be center stage in Europe’s exploration strategy.

But he also threw a dart at France: “If the Ariane 5 is needed for an institutional mission and is not available, then this is a major problem in terms of cooperation. If it is required for an institutional mission, it should be available for that mission,” Hintze said, referring to the fact that the Ariane 5 launch of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-2 (ATV-2) to the international space station scheduled for December has been moved to February to permit the vehicle to conduct three commercial launches.

The ATV launch delay, which German officials attributed to French priorities, forced NASA, Russia and the other space station partners to adjust the station’s complicated traffic management for early in 2011.

French Research Minister Valerie Pecresse, in her speech to the conference, urged all nations to go beyond the “natural annoyances” that happen when sovereign nations embark on a common enterprise. For France, Pecresse said, the number one principle for space exploration is that the program is conducted “without exclusivity or appropriation of the project by one nation or another.”

France has long been dubious about the international space station, investing heavily in it at the behest of Germany, but wary of a project in which the United States is the leader. “We can progress only if we create mutual trust,” Pecresse said, adding that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, appear to be seeking a truly collaborative effort.

The Russian delegate to the conference said that he has many friends at NASA and considers them to be the salt of the earth. It is the other elements of the U.S. government that raise suspicions, said Grigory Osipov, counselor to Russia’s permanent mission to the European Union.

“Russia does not have an approved exploration program [because] Russia doesn’t have adequate resources to take on new obligations,” said Osipov, stressing that he was expressing his opinions and not necessarily those of the Russian government. “Even if we had adequate resources, it’s unlikely we would be planning a Moon base or to fly [cosmonauts] to Mars. Why? Because one lesson we have learned is that space projects should not be politically driven. They should be based on expected results and on resource calculations only.

“You don’t demonstrate superiority by leaving a footprint somewhere,” Osipov said. “Especially since on Mars, footprints are much more short-lived than on the Moon.”

Osipov said it is natural that a global exploration project would seek a leader, and that the leadership “will belong to one country — of course the United States, as the most powerful space country. We would have no problems if all people in the U.S. were NASA people. Unfortunately, that is not the case, so we need to think about this leadership question.”

Osipov wondered whether the 18-nation European Space Agency might be a model for a global space exploration agency.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Laurie A. Leshin, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said the new U.S. space policy sets a high priority on international collaboration. She pointed to NASA’s coming dependence on Russia for manned flights and Europe and Japan for cargo flights to the space station once the U.S. space shuttle is retired in 2011.

Leshin conceded that sharing future space transportation roles for space exploration “is a complex issue because of the role of industry in our country, and elsewhere in the world.” She said that while she has no objection in principle to creating a body of experts to oversee a global effort, she remained unclear on what, exactly, the new body would do. Any power given to it by the United States, she said, would need to be approved by the U.S. State Department.

Thierry Duquesne, director for strategy and international relations at the French space agency, CNES, raised a similar issue. Fourteen spacefaring nations already are engaged, since 2007, in creating what they call a Global Exploration Strategy, Duquesne said. Separate international working groups are focusing on lunar and Mars exploration.