Space exploration is a multifaceted endeavor and a “grand challenge” of the 21st century like climate change and human security. It is an emblematic domain of space activities where traditionally only established space powers have been active. However, today space exploration has become an element of the political agenda of a growing number of countries around the world, leading to an internationalization of space exploration. Consequently, the space exploration environment is dramatically evolving.

The history of space exploration can be structured in three phases, each having distinct features and characteristics. The first phase of space exploration, Space Exploration 1.0, took place during the Cold War from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. For more than three decades, space was viewed as one of the areas for peaceful Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this era space exploration mainly consisted of international science missions with cooperation in the form of in-kind contribution and ad-hoc coordination mechanisms.

The second phase, Space Exploration 2.0, started in the 1990s as a result of the changing space context in the post-Cold War era. This period was characterized by an internationalization of space activities, adding new actors with increasing technical capabilities and new space agencies scattered all over the world.

We are currently on the verge of transitioning to a new space exploration era, Space Exploration 3.0. This new phase of space exploration will involve not only states through their space agencies, but also industries, space entrepreneurs, universities and others nongovernmental organizations.

A growing number of countries engage in space exploration, particularly in robotic exploration. The common goals and interests that are reported in the numerous national space exploration programs address science, the benefits for humanity, economic expansion and capturing the spirit of society for new endeavors.

However, in addition to national programs, many countries also have expressed an interest in cooperative exploration programs in the five years since the announcement of the U.S. Space Exploration Policy. Formal discussions of the goals, capabilities and timelines for future space exploration have taken place among major space agencies. International working groups and panels, such as the Committee of Space Research, the International Mars Exploration Working Group, the International Lunar Exploration Working Group and the International Primitive Body Exploration Working Group, are platforms with representatives from all space agencies and major institutions that exchange information on plans and strategies and promote international cooperation to maximize outcomes for each mission. This illustrates the paradigm shift in the traditional space exploration context and indicates that international cooperation is now becoming important to any long-term space exploration strategy.

The result of the work between representatives of 14 space agencies – Australia, China, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and the 18-country European Space Agency – also should be mentioned. In
2007 a
25-page report, “Global Exploration StrategyThe Framework for Cooperation,” was released as a product of an international coordination process among these agencies.

The Global Exploration Strategy (GES) develops the case for globally coordinated space exploration and investigates, among other things, a framework for the future coordination of global space exploration. In order to sustain collaborative activities, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), consisting of representatives of those 14 space agencies, has been created to implement and coordinate the GES.

While new axes of partnerships and new cooperative mechanisms have emerged in recent decades, the unfolding era of space exploration will lead to new models of cooperation reflecting the legacy of partnerships and the evolution of the space context. A new mechanism building on, but also going beyond, the current ISECG has to be put forward.

Any projections about the future of space exploration must take the global political environment into account, and consequently it is expected that in the years ahead new countries will embark into space exploration. Moreover, currently space exploration is conducted entirely by space agencies, and seems too specialized and unique to draw parallels to profit-making technology industries; however, looking two decades ahead in conjunction with the recent progress of the private sector, the situation may shift strongly toward more involvement of business including space entrepreneurs, with a remaining core program managed by governmental space agencies. The socio-economic potential for space exploration will increasingly become a motive for long-term plans. Entrepreneurs are already starting to play a significant role in different segments of space related to space exploration – such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital Sciences Corp., Google Lunar X Prize participants, etc. – and they are expected to be even more important players in the future leading to a paradigm shift in space exploration.

A successful and ambitious international space exploration program needs to draw from past heritage and present activities, and should be designed to fulfill future expectations and comport with future perspectives. Space exploration will therefore require new structuring frameworks, political and economic, to enable a sustainable long-term activity and evolve from an international to a truly global endeavor. In this context, new and innovative management structures have to be implemented.

Traditional approaches may need to be supplanted by a new paradigm including a focus on information exchange, organizational knowledge and human capital – as practiced in high-performance organizations. Furthermore, a general alignment of all space exploration stakeholders including emerging ones along lines drawn by commonality of purpose will be crucial to achieve a basis for marshalling sufficient resources for ambitious space endeavors. The successful long-term planning and development phase for major space architectures can only be implemented when those stakeholders strive toward a common goal on national and international levels. In this context, future resources may be drawn from different sources, such as core capital from governments and the private sector and even venture philanthropists that increasingly contribute funding to space endeavors.

The creation of an international task force – involving many stakeholders – acting as an efficient planning and decision-making body supported by interactive teams and cross-cultural experts must evolve from the ISECG structure that is currently only limited to space agencies. Such a platform will allow for bridging the gap among stakeholders (governments and space agencies, scientific community, industry and civil society) and reaping the benefits of potential synergies. A future global space exploration task force can be effective in designing and implementing an innovative long-term roadmap that will allow new countries to join and represent an overall effort supported by the public.

The new era of space exploration will be international, human centric, transdisciplinary and participatory. It will also provide an opportunity to inspire, motivate and involve an ever increasing number of countries. International cooperation will be a key feature of this evolving space exploration context, as well as the increasing involvement of the private sector. The rise of new space partners, environmental and social responsibility, innovations in knowledge management and technology will require creative management structures to realize the ambitions of the coming space exploration era.


Ehrenfreund is a research professor at the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs in Washington; Nicolas Peter is a research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna, Austria.