Global Exploration Strategy Reality Check

In May, NASA and 13 other space agencies released "The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination,”  which is designed to spur sharing of space exploration-related information. Along with NASA, signatories include the European Space Agency (ESA) and agencies from Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Republic of Korea and Ukraine.

The agreement calls for the establishment of a "common reference system" and "a common language of exploration," among other things, that would avoid redundancy in exploration efforts, save money and ensure that space programs compliment each other, says Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, advisor for sciences and technologies for the Canadian Space Agency and one of the co-authors of the agreement. "What is emerging is a true reference architecture where the sum of all the plans provides a big picture — a single plan — of what is unfolding," he says.

The potential benefits that the agreement could bring are intriguing to scientists. "The possibility (of opening) national missions for international payload contributions is in the interest of the scientific community. This would enlarge the possibilities for ESA and the scientific community to fly scientific payloads," says Bernhard Hufenbach, head of the strategy and architecture office in ESA’s Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration directorate.

The Framework also recognizes that "industry will have an increasingly important role in turning the new frontiers of space to economic opportunity,” says Hufenbach. “It is hoped that entrepreneurs will create businesses to exploit resources or provide commercial services such as cargo transport  and telecommunications. Thus, space exploration will become more sustainable and  government resources may be released to push further the bounds of human knowledge."   

The Framework also contains a legal dimension encouraging a more comprehensive approach to space law as well as the issues of "property rights" and the "protection of sites of interest."

"In those cases where the International Exploration Coordination Group (lacks) expertise, the group will ask existing bodies to help address the coordination issues," says Hufenbach. For example, this will help resolve disagreements between countries regarding the exploration of lunar sites, he says.

The one major roadblock is that this is not a formal treaty such as the one that governs the International Space Station and is the recommendations and not binding. "The biggest challenge now is to somehow maintain momentum and create something that is resilient enough to survive changes of government in different countries," says Piedboeuf.

As in any attempted international cooperation, overcoming cultural, political and social differences and building trust are the biggest challenges, says Hufenbach. "For example, regarding the free exchange of information, the situation is quite different in the countries which participate in the development of the Framework document. In China, for example, the spaceflight program is classified," says Hufenbach.

Even if China was willing to share information, other factors, such as the U.S. Department of State’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), also could pose hurdles, says a U.S. researcher. ITAR prevents U.S. scientists from discussing anything directly with or about the Chinese, the researcher says.

Scientists tend to welcome any effort that increases cooperation, but since the agreement is non-binding, the implementation of its recommendations and its impact on space exploration remain to be seen, says Jean-Claude Worms, head of the European Science Foundation’s unit for space sciences.

One early test could be a fight over where to focus resources. One of the latest estimates for the combined cost of exploration of the moon and Mars is more than 400 billion euros or more than $500 billion. In ESA’s fiscal year 2007 budget of 3 billion euros, only 1.4 percent is devoted to human and robotic exploration.

While the European science community is focusing on Mars, the United States is more concerned with the moon at the moment, and when priorities are different, it often is the country with the bigger budget that wins.

“This does not preclude [Europe] being able to contribute with challenging and interesting science and technology to an international lunar effort," says Worms. "Unfortunately, and despite these recommendations, the framework document prepared by the 14 space agencies seems to follow the [United States] in aligning the priorities of the international partners."

Others signatories also are concerned that a single country may exert too much influence over the other signatories. Human exploration on this scale, "is too big to (be conducted) by one country alone and international cooperation is mandatory,” says a spokesman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. “But the influence (of any single) participating country should be minimized. We need to find out the best structure from the (standpoint) of independence and cooperation to minimize the total cost."

Bringing 14 space agencies together under a single exploration framework is quite an admirable accomplishment, but until the impact of the agreement becomes more clear, it will be hard to judge the success of the effort.

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