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Many Benefits from International Cooperation, But Not Cost Savings, Says Panel

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 20-Nov-2013
Updated: 20-Nov-2013 09:36 AM

At a panel discussion yesterday, representatives from four major space agencies highlighted the many benefits of international space cooperation, even while noting that working with foreign partners is neither easy nor does it lead to cost savings.

The event was organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) and featured representatives of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  All are partners in the International Space Station (along with Russia).  ISS was cited as the most successful example of international cooperation to date.

Space cooperation, however, dates back much further. Kent Bress, director of the Aeronautics and Cross-Agency Support Division of the NASA Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR), traced NASA’s efforts back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created the agency.  International collaboration is “written in our legal DNA,” he said.  Today, over 50 years later, NASA has more than 600 active international agreements.

NASA has been pursuing space cooperation “essentially the same way” for all those decades, explained Bress. The fundamental guidelines, which include no exchange of funds or technology transfer among the partners, have remained virtually unchanged. “We are not in the business of teaching our partners how to operate in space,” said Bress about the “meet at the interface” principle NASA uses.

One of NASA’s longest-standing partners is Europe. Micheline Tabache, head of the Washington office of the 20-member ESA, said that the United States is ESA’s “main partner and has been since day one.” ESA does not pursue cooperation for its own sake, explained Tabache. According to her presentation “ESA seeks cooperation to pursue its programs, not for the sake of a general policy objective.” Concrete benefits to international partnerships include securing participation in large programs and the exchange of data and information.  For example, since ESA does not have a human spaceflight program, its cooperation with NASA has allowed them to launch astronauts into space. “Cooperation does not make things cheaper, I’m afraid, but it does make things happen,” Tabache added.  She also quoted ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain as saying that “It’s not easy to cooperate, but it’s more difficult to succeed alone.”

Bill Mackey, counselor of US-Canada space affairs at the Canadian Space Agency, also highlighted mutual benefit as a fundamental component of successful partnerships. “We can’t do it all alone,” he said.  Canada has benefited from five decades of “mutually-beneficial” cooperation with NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “By international cooperation we enrich the team,” he said.

This has also been Japan’s experience. According to Masahiko Sato, director of the Washington office of JAXA, “it is not an overstatement that Japanese space activities have evolved mainly through US-Japanese space cooperation.” That cooperation dates back to 1969 when both countries signed a space cooperation agreement, and has continued through the decades with cooperation on the space shuttle, ISS and many space and Earth science programs, as well as aeronautics. Sato noted that since the 1990s, JAXA has expanded its cooperative activities and currently has 201 agreements in effect with 44 nations.

With respect to the future of human spaceflight, several panelists referred to the roadmap recently released by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG).  That report suggests that there is disagreement between the United States, which plans to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step beyond low Earth orbit, and the other ISECG members who want to focus on the Moon.  Tabache urged that people not get “stuck on the destination.” What is important, she said, is that everyone agrees that it will be an international endeavor:  “We’re going somewhere [and] we’re going together.” Navigating international partnerships is “not going to be easy, but it’s going to happen,” she said.  Bress commented that it is “not about destination, but a common point of reference.”  Mackey noted that Canada currently chairs ISECG, but the Canadian government is reviewing its space policy so CSA is in a “wait and see” mode.

As for the key factors needed for successful international cooperation, Bress cited the ability to communicate effectively across cultures. ESA’s Tabache agreed, but added “trust is vital.”   Sato emphasized that a “strong commitment is important,” while Mackey stressed that one lesson that has been learned is that international space partnerships “don’t save money, but they work.”


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