Charting a Course for Cooperation in Space

By Logsdon, John M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Charting a Course for Cooperation in Space


Logsdon, John M., Issues in Science and Technology


Writing in Issues five years ago ("Leadership through Cooperation," Summer 1988), I suggested that "across-the-board U.S. preeminence [in space] is no longer a realistic aspiration," and that "given the realities in which the U.S. space program must operate--a very successful and much more open Soviet space program, Europe and Japan pursuing their independence of action through developing autonomous space capabilities, and similarity in goals and tight budget constraints for all space powers--a U.S. space strategy that emphasizes international collaboration makes better sense."

Much has changed since 1988, and not for the better from the perspective of advocates of an ambitious future in space. The Soviet space program has given way to a Russian effort that searches the world for those willing to pay in hard currency for its services or hardware. Europe has retreated from its quest for autonomy and now stresses enhanced cooperation as its path to the future. Slow budget growth, reflecting a lack of consensus on future payoffs from space, has constrained Japan's ambitions, and persistent technical problems with new launchers have set back its space program by several years at least.

In the United States, President Clinton has directed National Aeronautics and Space Administration head Daniel Goldin to "redesign NASA." This is just the latest move in a lengthy process of bringing NASA's programs and performance into step with the realities of today's international situation and with current and future U.S. interests in space, rather than hoping for a second coming of something like the Cold War competitive thrust that fueled the U.S. race to the moon. Goldin has declared the Apollo era "history" and is determined to reconstitute NASA as a much more productive organization.

Thus, at least for the next decade, the world's civilian space programs will have to make do with slowly growing or level budgets and diminished priority. In this situation, fostering international collaboration in space as a key element of U.S. space strategy makes even more sense than it did in 1988. As world leaders rethink their reasons for supporting major effects in space, there is a strategic opportunity to obtain new and expanded commitments to joint space undertakings.

This opportunity should be pursued for idealistic and pragmatic reasons. Among the idealistic motives is a belief that cooperative activities in space will contribute to a world in which longtime allies and former enemies can develop experience in working together in the common interest. By creating a web of international relationships, such experience can help counter tendencies toward restructuring post-Cold War international relations in terms of competing economic, political, and security blocs. From a pragmatic perspective, collaboration will allow a pooling of scarce financial and technical resources to carry out programs that are already on the space agenda; in addition, cooperative arrangements may be the only way in which large-scale new projects can be initiated and sustained.

In particular, the United States should seek a leading role in shaping future collaborations. In the past, the dominant U.S. position in space made co-operation optional. But now, the United States must either lower its ambitions in space or achieve them through collective action. Given this situation, the continuing desire to use space as an arena for demonstrating U.S. leadership, and the reality that other countries now approach--and in some areas surpass--the United States in space technology, this nation will have to rethink its approach to international space relationships.

Altered contexts

During the 1980s, space agency officials and industrial and academic leaders developed expansive plans for the future in space, particularly in the areas of human space exploration and the infrastructure to support it. Today, however, the link between those plans and various important national interests is not as clear as it once was. …

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