Space Flight: Team Up or Go Solo?

By Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

Space Flight: Team Up or Go Solo?


Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Some 220 miles above Earth orbits the biggest test of international spaceflight cooperation. It has a Russian and American crew. Its components were built on four continents. It has endured a Perils of Pauline history that might have terminated the project were it not that 15 other countries had signed on to the project through binding agreements.

But now, as spacefaring countries on both sides of the Atlantic look to extend humanity's presence to the moon, and eventually beyond, the space station's model of cooperation may have run its course.

The moon and, perhaps later, Mars efforts are slated to occur in incremental steps over decades, defying the single-project model that has been the space station's hallmark. Any new team effort will require a new approach by the United States, in particular, since its potential partners have grown more capable and less satisfied with what they see as their "subcontractor" roles.

Indeed, much has changed since 1984, when President Reagan called on Western allies to join in building a space station in response to the effort by the Soviet Union. The cold war ended, allowing the US and Russia to work together. Meanwhile, China joined the manned spaceflight club, and reportedly is looking at future manned lunar missions. Japan and India initiated moon and Mars exploration programs of their own. And Europe has launched its own Aurora program to reach the moon and beyond.

Thus, nations can pick partners with manned spaceflight experience in ways they couldn't during the cold war, when the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration was the only free- world option. Because their visions for human space exploration overlap, they probably will team up, experts say.

"This is inherently a global effort," says Lori Garver, former NASA associate administrator. "This is humanity's vision."

The alternative could be a new space race that no nation can sustain. Rough estimates for President Bush's vision for space exploration run as high as $100 billion over the life of the program - although no one knows for sure because it proceeds on a "go as you pay" basis, and new technologies or unforeseen stumbling blocks could dramatically change the equation.

Beyond questions of space- exploration costs are broader issues of how the US achieves its strategic goals, according to Joan Johnson-Freese, who heads the department of national- security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "We need to show we are a leader - the kind you want to work with." By joining with other nations in shaping a long-term manned-spaceflight effort, instead of merely asking other nations to sign on to Washington's project, she says, "we can shape the space activities of other countries, rather than have them going off and doing things we don't want them doing."

Convincing the public

Placing cooperation on a more equal footing also could help sustain public support for a long-term effort, she adds. "I work a lot with European space officials, and they tell me: If you think it's hard to get support for your space program, try doing it when the public perceives that you only play a supporting role."

The International Space Station shows the benefits and potential pitfalls of cooperation, analysts say.

The international nature of the partnership, in which allies committed to building key components, helped see it through tough budget times variously experienced by its 16 partners. And the inclusion of Russia in 1993 has been the program's savior since the Columbia disaster, Ms. Garver points out. When the Russians joined - a move that was highly criticized and very expensive - it meant that the station's orbit had to be changed to make it accessible to rockets launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Without Russia's crew-exchange and resupply missions since the Columbia accident, the station would be empty. …

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