OpEd: What Directions for Cooperation in Space Exploration?

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Human space exploration has recently become an important focal point in major space agencies’ plans. The catalyst for this recent movement is President George W. Bush’s bold redirection of the U.S. civilian space program to pursue exploration to the Moon, Mars and the “worlds beyond.”

However, the United States is not the only space faring country developing exploration visions and programs focusing on the Moon and Mars. Europe, through the European Space Agency (ESA), initiated its space exploration initiative, the Aurora program, in 2001 and is scheduled to take several major decisions at the next ESA Ministerial Conference in December, and to take further decisions for space exploration by 2008. But Russia, Japan, India, China and others also are establishing their own exploration plans for missions beyond Earth orbit .

Since the beginning of the Space Age, NASA has played a leading role in international space cooperative activities. But, the United States’ motivations for cooperation have not really evolved since the end of the Cold War, and due to the restrictive export control rules in the United States, there are only limited new opportunities for international collaboration.

It appears now that NASA is no longer in concordance with its traditional partners’ aspirations. It must admit that the defense of its “leadership” is not necessarily an objective of great appeal to those partners. Furthermore, there is a perception that the leadership role must be earned — not by resting on past achievements or unilaterally establishing the architecture, but by putting in place a program and structure that allow for partners to participate in significant ways.

NASA should also understand that it may lead, but sometimes should not have to lead since other countries have matured and might be able to provide leadership of their own.

With his re-election to a second term, President Bush secured another three years to get his Vision for Space Exploration off to a solid start. Nonetheless, the multidecadal space exploration strategy laid out in January 2004 still faces considerable challenges.

One is convincing Congress to continually approve the funding that NASA is seeking to complete the effort — and also have subsequent presidential administrations support it.

Structuring a program that will have enduring domestic support will be a challenge, and convincing various international partners to join this Vision for Space Exploration will be another one, especially since this vision lacks a compelling purpose.

The human instinct to explore is, in itself, not sufficient to justify the tremendous public expenditure that will be required.

Nor are some of the other analogies that are frequently used such as survey missions modeled after the 19th century Lewis and Clark expedition through North America’s Louisiana Territory, or the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.

NASA has not yet articulated how it will develop the objectives and purpose of lunar and martian missions, laboratories, observatories and bases, and due to these ambiguities the U.S. space agency has been unable to convince the international partners to embark on the vision.

Bush made international cooperation a key component of U.S. exploration plans. But the narrative of the June 2004 recommendations of the Aldridge Commission accentuated a U.S.-centric position by recommending that the United States must “determine its own requirements, expectations, milestones and risks” and “what part of its national industrial base it must protect,” and only then indicate what it is “willing to cede” to potential international partners.

This techno-nationalist rhetoric is certainly not of great appeal for the potential partners.

NASA now has a plan with the Exploration Systems Architecture Study, but is still unsure of how to implement it.

Serious political and financial challenges are looming ahead, with the administration’s entanglement in the costly conflict in Iraq and the extraordinary reconstruction effort promised following the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently acknowledged that the United States cannot fulfill its mandated mission alone, and is now looking for international cooperation in a broad array of domains ranging from the development of lunar habitats, power stations, and unmanned logistics and in situ resource utilization equipment.

However, NASA’s plan for building the hardware needed to land astronauts on the Moon by 2018 will limit future meaningful cooperation with others until the beginning of the next decade. NASA intends to provide the space transportation infrastructure equivalent to what Griffin refers to as a “21st century space highway,” but will the highway be toll free? Or, are the international space station (ISS) contributions already the tax required to benefit from the future infrastructure laid out by the United States?

Recent geopolitical developments, combined with the funding constraints of the various space faring countries, have made it clear that greater international cooperation will be important for major space activities. Therefore, there are multiple opportunities to cooperate but also many challenges.

The global climate for international cooperation is currently favorable as there are many common directions. However, that situation might not last for long depending on the direction that the ISS program takes, because completion of the ISS is a prerequisite for the international partners’ long-term cooperation in exploration endeavors. It is therefore time to set up a platform to engage in cooperation discussions as every space faring country lays down its exploration plans and options.

Since exploration visions are likely to differ, the steps each country will pursue, the funding provided and schedules followed also will vary. To support an enduring exploration vision, it will be important to remain flexible with regard to changing priorities and amenable to inclusion of new, nontraditional participants. For the new space exploration plans, which are fundamentally different from previous large space ventures including the ISS, a new structure of cooperation will be needed to facilitate a global dialogue.

Open-systems principles and common metaprinciples will be important in making the U.S. vision and other ambitious exploration plans a reality, but while the “where to go” seems similar among most space faring countries, the “how” and “when” and most importantly the “why” needs to be discussed among potential partners to decide what the directions the cooperation in space exploration will take.

The various space faring countries will need to demonstrate increasing will power to agree on the aims and objectives for cooperating in space exploration plans, as a simple justification of cost-sharing motivations for international participation is not sustainable.

Nicolas Peter is a research assistant at the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University in Washington and a research associate at the Laboratoire Communication et Politique in Paris.