heads of agencies
Walther Pelzer, head of the German space agency DLR, expressed Germany's support for extending the International Space Station during a heads of agencies panel at the 36th Space Symposium Aug. 25 as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson looks on. Credit: Thomas Kimmell

COLORADO SPRINGS — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he remains confident that Russia will remain a part of the International Space Station through the end of the decade but warned of an emerging space race with China.

Speaking on a panel with the heads of seven other space agencies at the 36th Space Symposium here Aug. 25, Nelson said that he didn’t believe media reports out of the Russia from earlier this year that claimed Roscosmos might end its participation on the ISS as soon as the middle of the decade to develop its own station.

“Despite what you read in the press, I think that the cooperation with the Russians, which has been there ever since 1975, will continue,” he said, referring to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975 when an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soyuz spacecraft.

As evidence of that, he said, was the docking last month of a new Russian module, called Nauka, with the station. “We expect our Russian partners to continue with us, and we expect to expand the space station as a government project all the way to 2030.”

Nelson has long advocated an extension of the ISS to 2030, although the U.S. Congress has yet to formally authorize such an extension. Any extension of the ISS would require the agreement of the other station partners: Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia.

In an Aug. 23 interview here, Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, said he backed extending the ISS. “Personally, I would strongly support it,” he said, but added that would require support from ESA’s member states. “I would certainly be very happy to present them a proposal for extended use of the ISS.” That would likely be at the next ESA ministerial meeting in late 2022.

One of ESA’s largest member states does support extending the station. “ISS is, from our point of view, tremendous infrastructure,” said Walther Pelzer, head of the German space agency DLR, on the panel.

“It is a political statement that we can work together and, from this point of view, it has been and will be something that Germany will support as long as possible,” he said. “We are very happy that NASA is going in the direction of 2030.”

Formal German support for an ISS extension may wait until after the German elections in late September, Pelzer said, “but I am positive that this will be something we will see in the future.”

While Nelson was optimistic about continued cooperation with Russia, he doubted that cooperation could be extended to China. “Unfortunately, I believe we’re in a space race with China,” he said.

Nelson did offer a prospect for cooperation, but under terms that he felt were unlikely to be accepted by China. “I would like, speaking on behalf of the United States, for China to be a partner,” drawing an analogy to cooperation between the United States and the former Soviet Union in space during the Cold War.

“But, China is very secretive,” he added, “and part of the civilian space program is that you’ve got to be transparent.”

Aschbacher said ESA received an invitation from China and Russia to cooperate on their international lunar research station project announced earlier this year. “The offer is on the table,” he said. A discussion about potential cooperation is ongoing among ESA members.

He emphasized, though, a “strong, excellent partnership” with NASA. “This is something that I value extremely highly.”

Philippe Baptiste, chairman and chief executive of the French space agency CNES, offered a more conciliatory note. “Let me play, perhaps, a naïve guy here,” he said, mentioning CERN, the international organization that supports high-energy physics research. “At CERN, all countries all over the world are involved if they want to. It’s completely open. They all work together to discover new particles. Their motto is, ‘peace by science.’”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...