Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall” follows the discussion of two neighbors about the rebuilding of a fence between their properties — carrying on an age-old conversation about terrestrial boundaries. The often cited line in the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors,” shows one neighbor’s perspective that boundaries can be healthy for both while the other neighbor questions the need for boundaries altogether.
The U.S. National Space Policy released this year takes an approach that would have satisfied both neighbors in Frost’s poem — advancing the importance of international cooperation while also maintaining a commitment to U.S. national security and industry health. As we cooperate in space, there is certainly a critical need to find the right balance between international cooperation and the maintenance of our country’s security and healthy space industry. Failure to find and proactively shepherd that balance could have devastating consequences for the U.S. space industry and our lead role as a spacefaring nation.
One area where international cooperation is needed is in addressing the challenge of orbital debris. The amount of debris is increasing due to the activity of spacefaring nations and threatens to grow dramatically as more nations develop or expand space capabilities. If we ever get anywhere remotely close to the scene in the animated film “Wall-E” where debris covers the Earth, we can say goodbye to the use of space for our national security, science and commerce. For such an important and challenging subject, national-level leadership and a single unified interagency point of contact to address orbital debris would be a good start.
Opportunities for international cooperation in space exist in a variety of areas, from military satellite communications and Operationally Responsive Space to weather monitoring and other civil space efforts. The administration of President Barack Obama already has signed several civil space agreements with France. The United States and India have agreed to broaden cooperation in civil space, and there is substantial interagency effort to review the impact of current U.S. export control regulation on the U.S. space manufacturing industry.
As domestic budgets for space systems experience low levels of growth or decline, international space opportunities for U.S. industry are vital. They may represent the best or only path to growth — and a buffer for potential industrial base issues as the demand for U.S. launch vehicles and space systems decreases. Business opportunities in India, South Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere could help the United States build relationships with key allies while also infusing the U.S. industrial base with needed resources.
Bringing international companies into the fold on U.S.-based space projects also can have benefits. Just look at the success of the international space station (ISS). Through international partnership, we have achieved a capability that would have been almost impossible for the United States to do on its own. And through the ISS we have given opportunities to our U.S. companies as well as our international colleagues. One imagines the same may be true for human space exploration.
As the Defense Department looks to increase efficiencies, there is real room for international cooperation that is complementary to that effort. Agreements with foreign partners, such as the Australia-U.S. partnership in Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), help save taxpayer dollars and provide our key allies with critical space capabilities. We should find ways to add stability and predictability to military space system orders so that these types of agreements are able to continue and potentially even grow.
When our companies do compete globally, we need to make sure they can do so on a level playing field. European space companies often enjoy government loans and export-credit agency financing to build commercial satellites. Meanwhile, these companies are able to market their products effectively by touting their lack of U.S. components, which typically are tied to an outdated and inefficient export control system.
The Aerospace Industries Association strongly supports President Obama’s calls to cooperate more with our friends and allies in the space sector — but policy has to be backed up with the right implementation steps to ensure that U.S. leadership, national security, our global competitiveness, preservation of our industrial base and innovation in space all remain in the forefront.
Ultimately, as we mend walls in our approach to space and the business of space, what makes good neighbors is balanced cooperation — giving our partners access to U.S. markets while allowing the opening of markets abroad.
Marion C. Blakey is president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. In 2007, she completed a five-year term as head of the Federal Aviation Administration.