One of the most significant features of the National Space Policy released by the White House in July was its increased emphasis on international cooperation. The policy called for promoting “appropriate cost- and risk-sharing among participating nations in international partnerships” and augmenting U.S. capabilities “by leveraging existing and planned space capabilities of allies and space partners.” But in one high-profile sector of space activity, human space exploration, these policy directives have not yet been factored into the highly contentious and confusing process through which a path forward will — one hopes — soon emerge. If the intent of the new space policy is to be honored, there soon needs to be more top-level attention to bringing potential partners into planning for a global approach to exploration.
That international considerations have not been part of the debate regarding the future of U.S. human spaceflight over the past several months is not surprising. With the focus on coming up with an approach that simultaneously accommodates some key elements of the new White House strategy, satisfies the political demands of multiple stakeholders, and in fact creates a U.S. human spaceflight program that is executable, productive and sustainable across several administrations, there has been little time or incentive to give much attention to international participation. But it is important to avoid presenting potential partners with a fait accompli in terms of a politically sanctioned U.S. exploration strategy and a program to achieve it, and only then asking them whether, and how, they would like to participate. That approach is too reminiscent of the 1980s process of making the space station international, an approach that potential partners are anxious not to see repeated. Supposedly, the new U.S. approach to space cooperation is to be more inclusive from the start.
To be fair, NASA at the working level has done a good job of maintaining an ongoing and open dialogue with its space agency partners with respect to its possible future direction and its desire to craft a global approach, even though the space agency itself does not know what the future holds. NASA since 2006 has played a leading role in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), which includes 14 space agencies, and recently involved international participants in a workshop examining the rationales for missions to near Earth objects (NEOs). But this dialogue cannot substitute for political-level U.S. engagement with potential partners.
The choice of a NEO as the initial target in a multidestination exploration strategy is a problem from an international perspective. While there may be reasonable scientific, economic and planetary defense reasons for exploring an Earth-crossing asteroid, none of the candidate objects seems to justify more than a relatively brief, one-time visit. Compared with lunar surface exploration, which offers a number of significant possibilities for non-U.S. contributions, there are limited opportunities for international partners to make substantial hardware contributions (which in turn foster their domestic industrial and political interests) to a NEO exploration campaign.
The realistic potential for significant non-U.S. hardware contributions to a NEO mission is in the transportation system for getting to and from the object. However, since 2005 the United States has been planning to develop by itself all elements of a deep space transportation system. International partners could potentially contribute some major parts of such a system, including various propulsion elements or the habitat for the long-duration flight, but that possibility has not been reflected in the first round of NASA planning for a NEO mission. How much non-U.S. involvement in a deep space transportation system is politically and technically acceptable is a decision that needs to be made and communicated soon, as NASA begins to work with its international partners in the next round of planning for a NEO mission. But staying with a NEO as the initial exploratory destination might not be the best way forward.
Potential partners have spent the past several years assessing cooperative opportunities presented by a U.S.-led return to the Moon. The sudden U.S. shift away from the Moon as the initial destination for resumed exploration has undermined the momentum gained through that collective effort. That shift in destinations has been driven not primarily by the attractiveness of a NEO as a high-priority exploration destination, but rather by the conclusion in last year’s Augustine committee report that even with an increased NASA budget, the United States on its own could afford to develop in the next two decades only a deep space spacecraft and a heavy-lift launcher, but not a lander. This conclusion ruled out the Moon, with its substantial gravity well, as a destination, if the United States alone was providing transportation capabilities for human exploration. But the Augustine group also noted, “If international partners are actively engaged, including on the ‘critical path’ to success … more overall resources could become available.” Might broadening the base for funding exploration increase “overall resources” to the point that a lander for the lunar surface would become affordable?
The U.S. switch away from the Moon as an exploratory destination also runs counter to what is happening in many other parts of the space world. The Moon is an increasingly popular destination for the robotic missions of both established and emerging space powers. In recent months, the Japanese government has reiterated that exploring the Moon remains a top priority, and the European Space Agency seems poised to initiate a program to develop a complex robotic lunar lander and rover with potential extensibility to carrying humans to the lunar surface. A major conference on European plans is scheduled for late October; the space community hopes to get the European Union to contribute significant new funding to exploratory efforts. The Canadian Space Agency remains strongly interested in lunar research. After two years of work, ISECG in July released its “Reference Architecture for Human Lunar Exploration,” which represented an initial consensus among most participants (Russia, China and India, unfortunately, were not actively engaged in the process) with respect to how to go about a new round of lunar exploration. This plan also implied a division of labor and hardware contributions among the participating agencies.
It is probably unrealistic to think that a rapid round of top-level consultations among at least the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan, potentially India and Russia (and less realistically China), and perhaps space-ambitious countries like South Korea, could quickly lead to political-level agreement on coordinated funding and development of all three basic capabilities needed for a program of deep space exploration that includes landing on the Moon and eventually Mars. But it might be possible to take initial steps in that direction. While reinserting the Moon as a destination would mean changing the policy articulated by U.S. President Barack Obama last April, it is worth noting that both the Senate and House NASA authorization bills call for the lunar surface to be an early exploratory destination. The United States could continue development of a deep space craft and begin design and development of a heavy-lift launcher without at this point tying either to a specific destination.
The basis for a global approach to lunar exploration has been put in place, with significant U.S. involvement, over the past few years. Space News last week suggested that “it is time to hit the reset button yet again” [“No Attractive Options for NASA,” editorial, Sept. 20, page 18]. Before the United States gets totally committed to skipping the Moon on its planned journeys away from Earth, might a new attempt to create a truly global exploration effort, with interdependence among key partners and with the Moon rather than a NEO as the first stop along the “flexible path,” be worth considering?
John M. Logsdon is professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and founder of GW’s Space Policy Institute.