On 20 July 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin landed on the moon, cementing the United States as the winner of the space race. They left behind an American flag, as well as a plaque that reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon…We came in peace for all mankind.” These simple words established outer space not as a battleground for individual nations, but rather as a domain that belongs to all of humanity. Despite NASA’s accomplishments during the space age, it is now facing hard times due to reductions in funding, the increasing costs of research, and the loss of public opinion. Space exploration is at a crossroads, and it is becoming ever more important to find a solution to its problems. Like many modern-day problems, its solution is an international one.
Space research and exploration has many benefits, which is why NASA’s decline is problematic. In a 2012 article adapted from his book entitled Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson writes, “nothing spurs cross-pollination like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, planetary geologists.” Indeed, in their quest to explore and research space, astrophysicists and other scientists have discovered many secondary benefits that impact all of mankind. These secondary benefits are the reasons mankind needs a continued presence in space, and why the problems facing national space agencies today have grave consequences.
An international path forward allows for the continuation of space research and exploration. International work in outer space is nothing new; as soon as mankind took its first steps off planet Earth, it recognized the universal nature of space activities, and that it was not a venture that could be undertaken alone. As expressed through the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (The Outer Space Treaty,) “the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.” This treaty established the neutrality of outer space, as well as the UN’s desire for international cooperation in regards to space research and exploration. It serves as the foundation for many of the international agreements that followed it. Aside from the international laws governing outer space, there exists an organization based off of an international charter – the European Space Agency.
While the United States and Soviet Union competed for supremacy during the Cold War, Western Europe focused on how it could become a prominent actor in space research. Noting that, “the magnitude of the human, technical and financial resources required for activities in the space field is such that these resources lie beyond the means of any single European country,” on 30 May 1975, ten countries signed the charter for the European Space Agency. The aim of ESA, as expressed in this charter, is to “increase the efficiency of the total of European space efforts by making better use of the resources at present devoted to space.” It completed this by uniting its member states into a single space organization. The 20 member states of ESA work together on a wide variety of projects, including the robotic exploration of Mars, Earth observation, telecommunications, navigation, human spaceflight, and education and outreach.
Despite its relatively late-start, through the successes of its programs, ESA has shown the benefits an international program creates. Most recently, ESA captured the world’s attention by landing the first man-made probe on a comet. It has made incredible advances in understanding near-Earth space, upper atmosphere and magnetosphere research, telecommunications, and meteorology. The Orbital Test Satellite, European Communications Satellite, and Olympus satellite have all contributed to developing space communications in Europe, and have led to ESA becoming one of the world’s leaders in communications. ESA has also played a large role in the International Space Station. It built the Spacelab, an aspect of the International Space Station that made outstanding contributions to astronomy, life sciences, atmospheric physics, Earth observation and materials science. Throughout its nearly 40-year history, ESA has proven that it has an incredible capacity to adjust to changing political and economic environments, and it has grown to be one of the largest space agencies in the world. It also is an excellent example of a successful international enterprise.
ESA has member states as large as France and as small as the Czech Republic. This ensures that smaller countries can receive the same benefits as larger ones, and the benefits provided by space research reach humans all over the world. Member states of ESA do not need a national agency devoted to space research in order to join; they merely need the industrial capability to contribute to ESA’s mission. This allows smaller countries with minimal technological capabilities to partake in ESA’s work and obtain the benefits of space research.
Members of ESA contribute funding and manpower to specific projects proportional to their wealth. This ensures that European interests in space are protected and sustainable for the future. The financial crisis of 2008 and its lasting economic implications demonstrated this. While the individual member states of ESA faced budget problems, ESA continued its work. In 2012, the member states of ESA decreased their contributions by 2.5%, nevertheless, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the Director General of ESA, announced, “The financial problems affecting many European governments have not forced ESA to cancel or substantially modify any of its approved programs.”
The International Space Station, another international space venture, demonstrates that international cooperation allows larger and more expensive projects. The fact that the costs of the ISS are shared among its members ensures its sustainability, especially when considering the enormous expenses incurred by having a permanent research lab in orbit around the Earth. The ISS is an incredibly important project for the future of mankind and space exploration, yet its estimated cost of over $150 billion makes it too expensive for any one country to undertake alone. According to the original treaties establishing the ISS, each member nation is responsible for costs relating to the functions they provide. For example, in building the space station Canada provided a mobile servicing center, Europe built a pressurized laboratory, and the U.S. contributed a habitation module. Because many of the partners involved in the ISS face budget cuts from their national governments, the fact that costs are shared among them guarantees that the ISS will continue to be operational and provide benefits to humanity. Similarly, by sharing the costs, several countries involved in the program will be able to undertake larger and more expensive projects than they could alone.
Another benefit of international coordination in research is improved diplomatic relations. Due to its nature, the ISS is an excellent example of this. Julie Payette describes it as “perhaps the most complex and technically ambitious large-scale engineering project ever undertaken by a group of nations…[that] is as much a foreign policy and human achievement as it is a technical one.” The ISS has even been described as “a foreign policy tool.” After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it helped to foster relations between the U.S. and Russia by forcing them to cooperate in order to ensure the successful completion of its mission. Part of the success of the ISS has been that it brings many different countries and actors together, “causing them to think not from a microcosm of nationality, but in terms of pushing the boundaries of the known world as partners, in a collaborative spirit and a peaceful manner.” This has been shown through relations between the United States and Russia since their collaboration began on the ISS. For example, in 1999 tensions were high between the two countries due to NATO’s air war in Kosovo and Serbia, yet work on the space station continued despite the political drama.
Critics of international collaboration claim that it causes countries to become dependent on other countries, and thus their own capabilities diminish. However, as ESA has demonstrated, it is very possible for countries to work together without giving up their own abilities. As explained by Gib Kirkham, the NASA representative in Europe, there exists a “critical path” one must tread when working on an international project. It is important to maintain a relationship of coordination without becoming too dependent on one’s partner. Countries can maintain their own agencies while contributing to larger international projects; in fact, as demonstrated by NASA’s relationships with its partners, it is already being done. International cooperation has long been a part of NASA’s DNA. The founding document of NASA itself calls for international cooperation. In its early days, the United States viewed international projects as tools to enhance its own prestige, rather than the betterment of mankind in its entirety. Preliminary US policy on outer space described the opportunities for international cooperation to “[enhance] the position of the United States as a leader in advocating the uses of outer space for peaceful purposes…‘[and open] up’ the Soviet Bloc.” The Office of International and Interagency Relations manages international agreements within NASA, which range from scientific missions, human exploration and operations, aeronautics research, and education and outreach. In total, NASA has joined in over 3,000 agreements with over 120 nations and international organizations. During the 135 missions of the Space Shuttle program, 63 international astronauts from 15 different countries participated alongside American NASA employees. Throughout all of this, NASA has maintained its autonomy, showing that countries can work together without giving up the power to control their own paths.
In the May 2012 cover story of Aerospace America, David Leonard wrote, “The next major step in human space exploration…will not be possible without multinational cooperation.” Indeed, a variety of experts in the field agreed with him. For example, Bernhard Hufenback, an executive of the European Space Agency says, “Global cooperation for future space exploration is not only a necessity, due to the resources required for implementing sustained exploration, but also a common goal…considering derived broader socioeconomic benefits.” He added that mankind needs an international space program with “a clearly defined governance scheme and overall cooperation framework…it needs to be flexible and easily adaptable to cope with changes of partners and mission scenarios.” Indeed, as shown by the successes of ESA and the ISS, international cooperation in outer space is the future for mankind beyond Earth.