Uncertainty over U.S. space policy trajectory frees other nations to chart their own paths
Russia wants to set up a permanent international Moon base and to focus on the space station as a testbed for human exploration deeper into the Solar System. Japan and India also see value in more lunar exploration, and many of the world's space agencies want to work more closely with China.
None of those views tracks with existing or evolving U.S. space goals and objectives. As Congress and the White House continue their struggle in this election year over's next steps in space, the U.S. agency's international partners are exercising more independence in their own space-exploration plans.
Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) have expanded the scope of their potential cooperation beyond the joint robotic Mars missions set in motion after the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of ESA's ExoMars effort last year (AW&ST March 19, p. 35). Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency, is not shy about where he thinks the partnership forged on the International Space Station (ISS) should go next.
“We're not trying to convince you that we should not be doing anything in the area of Mars exploration, asteroid exploration,” Popovkin said May 22 at the first Global Space Exploration Conference here. “It's just in our professional opinion today we have much better chances to come up with very productive results while concentrating on the Moon.”
's stated goal for human exploration in deep space is to reach a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, followed by a trip to Mars in the 2030s. Those dates are notional and highly dependent on budget levels. Congressional staffers briefing the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science May 23 said prospects are “gloomy” at best for any increases in NASA's budget this year. If funds are sequestered under previous congressional action on deficit reduction, NASA could face a 7-8% cut across the board.
Scientists on the NRC panel are concerned about the impact of the planetary-science budget cuts that took NASA out of its joint Mars-exploration effort with ESA (AW&ST May 14, p. 27). But the effect of the budget uncertainty extends beyond the need for NASA to make new plans for Mars exploration.
Popovkin says in addition to working out roles and responsibilities with ESA on exploring Mars—basically, Russia will provide launches and instruments in exchange for sharing the data—the two agencies are beginning to discuss other cooperative ventures.
“We are working together, and we are pursing a variety of different objectives in terms of exploration including Mars, and including Jupiter satellites, a great many things that we are not prepared to give out at this point,” he says.
Roscosmos has approval from the Russian government to work with the Europeans, he says, noting that President-elect Vladimir Putin is expected to continue in his second term the strong support he gave the Russian space program during his first term in office.
“There has been no impact in the Roscosmos standing whatsoever,” he says of the election results.
While most of the changes in U.S. space policy have originated in the White House, a key element of that policy was drafted on Capitol Hill. Legislation spearheaded on human-rights grounds by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, prohibits the agency from spending any funds to cooperate with China.
That does not sit well with NASA's partners on the ISS, who say work on the space station and the next steps in human exploration should be open to the only other nation, aside from the U.S. and Russia, that has launched humans to orbit. Those views were on display in a heads-of-agency panel during the exploration conference.
“China is a big space power with a lot of capabilities,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of ESA. “A partnership cannot be sustainable if it is a closed partnership. It was good to open the partnership of the Space Station Freedom, at that time, to Russia. The partnership cannot be closed.”
Popovkin agreed, as did Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency, who noted that his government is looking at expanding its trade relations with China. “It's prudent for us to explore the possibility of working together with China,” says MacLean, a former space shuttle astronaut.
Despite the uncertainty over details of the U.S. direction in space, the agency chiefs and their surrogates at the conference here agreed that international cooperation is the only way to move beyond low Earth orbit to explore the Solar System, with both humans and robotic spacecraft. As long as building and launching spacecraft remains as expensive as it is today, cooperation will be essential for exploration.
But as Dordain says, it is difficult and slow to accomplish, something he has learned as head of a 19-nation agency. Among the issues that complicate cooperation are the need for an equitable return on the public money invested in space and the difficulty coordinating the disbursement of funds when countries have different budget cycles and appropriations processes. Russia may be ready to work with Europe, says Popovkin, but the joint project must await the meeting of ESA ministers in November for final authority to proceed.
Aside from that bilateral Mars program, the Russian space chief argues that the next big international exploration effort should build on the past 40-plus years of lunar exploration—and not repeat the sortie missions of the Apollo era.
“It's a new Moon,” Popovkin says of his agency's concept for a long-term permanent base. That outpost could take advantage of the water ice at the Moon's poles to continue exploring the lunar surface, he says, and to prepare for the next leap into the Solar System.
The concept, which is roughly the same one NASA pursued under then-President George W. Bush's Constellation program of human exploration development, would require the consensus of the other space-faring nations in the world, Popovkin stresses.
But because the ISS is basically a merger in space of NASA's old Space Station Freedom and Russia's Mir II orbital laboratory project, total consensus is not required to decide how the facilities will be used. Each partner has its own facilities on board, and Russian cosmonauts tend to support Russian scientists in the Russian modules.
Popovkin says his agency is shifting its station-research focus from life sciences work to engineering developments that can support human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. That work will center on the new multipurpose laboratory module Roscosmos hopes to launch to the space station in 2014, he says. Among activities that may be possible is an in-space repeat of the Mars 500 ground simulation of a human mission to Mars, he suggests.
The exploration conference opened a few hours afterInc. (SpaceX) launched a Dragon cargo capsule toward its first rendezvous and berthing with the ISS (see p. 35). Just as there was consensus that exploration will require international cooperation, there was consensus that the historic mission marked a “breakthrough” in the way humans reach space, in the words of Berndt Feuerbacher, president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which co-sponsored the conference.
The president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the other conference sponsor, is former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who set aside $500 million in NASA's long-term budget for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money effort that helped fund SpaceX's project. Griffin, a Republican who advises likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney on space policy, noted that his Democratic successors dramatically accelerated the commercial-space push he helped to start into the $500 million-a-year pace.
And while he, too, congratulated SpaceX on its achievement in launching the Dragon capsule, Griffin cautioned that the commercial space sector alone will not address the issues raised at the exploration conference.
“I'd like to back up a bit and remind everybody that commercial, quote unquote, is a procurement mechanism,” Griffin said, stressing that he was speaking only for himself. “We're still talking about procuring goods and services, using public monies, on behalf of the taxpayer to accomplish strategic purposes that our nation's policymakers have decided they want done. There is not yet a viable commercial marketplace . . . . Commercial is a procurement strategy. It is not a space policy.”