OpEd: President Obama and International Space Cooperation

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  Space News Business

OpEd: President Obama and International Space Cooperation

By JOHN M. LOGSDON

posted: 15 July 2009
04:28 pm ET






One of the charges to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, to use the full name of the group being chaired by Norm Augustine, is to “examine appropriate opportunities for international collaboration.” There is a sense that U.S. President Barack Obama wants to take a more open, multilateral approach to international cooperation in human exploration than the “meet the United States on the Moon” offer that has been U.S. policy since
2005. In
thinking about the character of that changed approach, many point to the experience of the international space station (ISS) as particularly relevant. For example, former NASA space science chief Wes Huntress in his input to the Augustine group noted that “much of the heavy lifting in establishing precedent for international partnerships has been undertaken by the International Space Station.”

There is one part of the ISS experience that seems to be getting little attention – how the partnership got started in the first place. Inviting other countries to join the U.S. space station program was a presidential initiative, announced by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address, quickly followed up by a global tour by NASA Administrator James Beggs acting as a personal emissary of the president, and reiterated by Reagan at the June 1984 G-8 summit meeting in London. When the
United States
decided to invite
Russia
to join the space station program, it was U.S. President Bill Clinton that first broached the idea to Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a bilateral summit meeting in April 1993 and Vice President Al Gore who formally announced the
U.S.
intent a few months later.

If indeed the Obama administration wants to change both the tone and substance of its approach to cooperation in human spaceflight beyond the ISS, having the president himself announce that change and invite other countries to join the
United States
in crafting a global approach to the future in space could be a powerful step toward success.

In 1984, the result of putting presidential prestige behind the
U.S.
invitation to cooperate was to elevate the question of how to respond to the highest governmental levels. Rather than space agencies having to struggle to convince their governments that participation in the U.S.-led project was worthwhile, in almost every case the responses started with a top-down expression of positive political will to cooperate. Starting the international partnership in this way was an essential factor in the long-term stability of the ISS collaboration as the project has experienced wildly changing fortunes over the 25 years since 1984. Similarly, linking presidential support for expanding the station partnership to include
Russia
to broader issues of U.S.-Russian relationships created a relationship that allowed the station to survive both
U.S.
domestic opposition and the impacts of the
Columbia
accident and the imminent end of space shuttle flights.

By contrast, the 2004 invitation to international partners to cooperate in the Vision for Space Exploration was limited to part of one sentence in the presidential policy statement announcing the Vision, followed by poorly chosen language in the follow-up implementation report saying that the United States should make a unilateral decision regarding what elements of the exploration undertaking it wanted to “cede” to potential partners. In November 2005 NASA Administrator Mike Griffin announced that building a transportation system to carry astronauts and cargo to the Moon would be a unilateral U.S. undertaking, and that the first opportunity for other countries to participate in human exploration would come from contributions to the lunar surface elements. One impact of this announcement was to abort an emerging partnership between U.S. and European space industry to develop a new crew-carrying spacecraft. Based on this policy decision, since 2006 14 space agencies have been coordinating their potential contributions to future lunar exploration, but there has been no top-level expression of political interest in the results of that process.

The reality is that there is uncertain political support for future human spaceflight among many of the current ISS partners. Asking Europe, Japan and Canada to provide continuing funding for an extended period of ISS utilization and to commit to early participation in human exploration is not likely to elicit a positive response unless there is increased political will to cooperate on their part. That decision can only come from their political leadership, and it is to that leadership that a presidential invitation should be directed. Extending the invitation to cooperate, first in the ISS and then in future programs, to China, India and South Korea, as recently suggested to the Augustine Committee by the director general of the European Space Agency, may well be an important step, but it should be built on a foundation of enhanced cooperation among the current ISS partners.

One opportunity for President Obama to announce a new
U.S.
approach to international cooperation could come as he addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations this fall. There is an interesting precedent. On Sept. 20, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy asked as he spoke before the U.N.: “Why should man’s first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition? … Surely,” he added, “we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries – indeed of all the world – cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the Moon not the representatives of a single nation, but representatives of all our countries.” Sadly, two months later JFK was dead from an assassin’s bullets; with his death, the impetus to cooperate in going to the Moon disappeared.

Whether at the United Nations or in some other venue, a call for space cooperation coming from another new, young American president could have a galvanizing effect on the future course of space exploration, and not just for the
United States
. As the Obama administration formulates its approach to future human spaceflight, the international dimensions of that approach deserve direct presidential involvement.

John M. Logsdon is professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He currently holds the Charles Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.