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NASA's Directions and its Impacts on Trans-Atlantic Space Relations

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Feature Article
by Nicolas Peter

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The US and Europe have been cooperating with success in space activities for almost forty years. Yet the US budget request for fiscal year 2007 may pose significant challenges to this historic partnership, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) might cancel or unilaterally postpone numerous missions developed in international cooperation. Furthermore, following the accident of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, and the subsequent complete reassessment of US national space policy, space exploration has recently become the important focal point of NASA's plans. This poses a challenge to all other space-faring countries in the world, and Europe in particular, that have made the International Space Station (ISS) utilization the centerpiece of their planning for the next decade and more; but it may also provide a new impetus to the trans-Atlantic space relations and raise the relationship from a program-to-program cooperative approach to a broader policy level that will be more stable in the long run.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The US and Europe have been cooperating in space activities for almost four decades. This history of cooperation has survived significant geopolitical, economic, and technological changes such as the end of the Cold War, the pressure of budget reduction, the difficulties of cooperation in several projects, etc. Both Europe and the US have learned from one another, acquired and developed a knowledge base and, most importantly, have established a heritage of cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic. More than 100 missions have involved various levels of US-European cooperation in space research. Yet key trends on each side may pose significant challenges to this historic partnership.

The tense GPS-Galileo negotiations over frequency allocation and the utilitarian nature of Europe space endeavors (Galileo, GMES) are affecting the nature of traditional European-US relations in space, and the consequences of seasonal US domestic issues are also of concern. In particular, the foreseen budget cuts in space science and the subsequent shift in priorities regarding research projects will undoubtedly affect international cooperation ventures and the long established trans-Atlantic partnership in space sciences. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reorientation of priorities towards space exploration may give a new impetus to trans-Atlantic space relations.

NASA budgetary issues
On February 6, President Bush released his proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2007. Although the new budget proposes substantial increases for key engineering and science programs as part of an American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), and despite its favored status with the current administration, NASA like other federal agencies is being asked to do more with less. The FY 2007 budget request for NASA is $16.8 billion in 2007, just 1 percent more than in 2006. While the US Congress unanimously passed a bipartisan bill - which President Bush signed - late last year urging the President to fund NASA for $17.9 billion in 2007 and $18.7 billion in 2008, most of the critics of the FY 2007 budget focus on its allocation of funds rather than the simple budget increase.

 

In particular, NASA's request includes $5.3 billion for conducting science in the 2007 budget, a 1.5 percent increase in 2007 - and a 1 percent growth in the following four years, - whereas the science community had previously been told that the NASA science budget would increase 8 to 9 percent annually through the end of the decade. NASA's FY 2005 budget assumed healthy growth rates in NASA's space and Earth science programs. Yet subsequent budgets have fallen far short of expectations - roughly $4.4 billion short in earth and space science programs and $2.1 billion short in biological and physical science programs in the 2007-2010 time frame (1). The science community had also been promised by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin that science funding would not be diverted to pay shuttle or space station bills. The FY 2007 proposal is therefore a significant turnabout for the science community from what was projected a year ago.

Following vocal reactions of leading experts in the science community, Dr. Mary Cleave, the NASA Associate Administrator for Science, pledged to review the FY 2007 budget proposal for each science division in light of recommendations from the scientific community. However, the NASA administrator has said that the change of plans was unavoidable compared to last year's commitments, given the twin priorities of completing the International Space Station (ISS) and building a space shuttle replacement capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon. As a result of the aforementioned budgetary issues, NASA plans to postpone or cancel several major science missions, which will also make it difficult to initiate the formulation of any new missions. The size of the cut would vary from discipline to discipline, but several missions have already been cancelled. For instance, on December 16, 2005, Hydros (Hydrosphere State Mission) which was to provide the first global view of the Earth's changing soil moisture and surface freeze conditions, received a letter stating that NASA would not fund the Hydros project through completion of the formulation phase. This overall situation denotes an increasing disconnect between scientists and NASA officials, that could lead to a conflict between Earth and space science disciplines as they seek to preserve their respective missions and shares of the space agency's budget.

The Agency's new budget would not only impact the US science community, but also several international cooperative programs - particularly in Earth and space science, two areas in which NASA has traditionally had a good record. For instance, the Stratospheric Observation for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project, which is a joint program with the German space agency (DLR), is currently under review and might be cancelled in the next few months due to budget overrun. Similarly, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), may also experience an early end to NASA participation. The replacement for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is also likely to be delayed. In the same vein, the flagship Earth Science mission, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, which is a joint US-Japanese project intended to improve climate and weather prediction through more accurate and more frequent precipitation measurements, has been delayed until 2012.

If the aforementioned projects were to be impacted by NASA's budget request, future international cooperation with the United States would be questioned by other nations in a fashion similar to what occurred after cancellation of the US spacecraft for the joint NASA/ESA International Solar Polar Mission (ISPM) and the Spacelab program in the 1980s. This would (again) not be forgotten soon. But, in contrast to the 1980s, several other countries such as Japan, the Russian Federation, and more recently the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India now offer interesting alternatives for cooperation in space activities.

A new opportunity for cooperation?
The accident of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, had a tremendous effect on the US civil space sector, leading to a complete reassessment of the US national space policy. In this context, space exploration has recently become an important focal point in NASA's plans. The catalyst for this recent movement is President George W. Bush's redirection of the US civilian space program to pursue exploration to the Moon, Mars, and the "worlds beyond" expressed on January 14, 2004. President Bush's "Vision for US Space Exploration" encompasses a major redirection of the NASA objectives and budget to explore space and extend a human presence across the solar system. This new space exploration policy calls for "a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond" and seeks also to "promote international and commercial participation in space exploration to further US scientific, security, and economic interests" (2).

Since last Fall, NASA has initiated a plan with the Exploration Systems Architecture Study, but is still unsure of how to implement it. Furthermore, serious political and financial challenges are looming ahead, with the Administration's entanglement in the costly conflict in Iraq and the extraordinary reconstruction effort promised following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In this context, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin acknowledged last November that the United States cannot fulfill its mandated mission alone, and is now looking for international cooperation in a broad array of domains ranging from the development of lunar habitats, power stations, and unmanned logistics and in situ resource utilization equipment (3). The Vision for Space Exploration will therefore require international cooperation to be sustainable, flexible, and robust. European participation can therefore be a critical enabler for the US program since going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond will not be the journey of a single country (4).

However, when considering future cooperation with the US, potential partners want to avoid finding themselves in another situation where the ability to be successful is totally dependent on the US - as in the case of the ISS where its funds are being used to support US space exploration rather than fulfilling their original objectives. One major obstacle for international cooperation in the "Vision for US Space Exploration" was recently cleared up with the March 2 endorsement by the space station partners of the NASA Assembly Plan. The new assembly sequence has the shuttle launch the European Columbus science laboratory and the Japanese Experiment Module to the space station in 2007, a little earlier than previously planned. Now that this critical issue has been resolved, the potential partners can engage seriously and formally in multilateral discussion to investigate how to cooperate in space exploration.

Future friends or foes?
While, in general, trans-Atlantic cooperation has been an essential element in the successful development of the European space science, President Bush's current "Vision" encompasses a major redirection of the NASA objectives and budget to explore space. This plan poses both a challenge and an opportunity to all other space-faring countries in the world. Other countries, particularly the ISS partners among others in Europe, have made the ISS utilization the centerpiece of their planning for the next decade and more. Now they are being asked to join the US in another new project while they continue their plans for ISS utilization. As illustrated with the current US domestic issues, successful cooperation with NASA depends on its ability to keep political and especially budgetary support for that particular program and set of missions, and therefore international cooperation is not always straightforward.

President Bush's "Vision" may provide a new opportunity for international cooperation, but NASA's plan for building the hardware needed to land astronauts on the Moon by 2018 will limit future meaningful cooperation with others until the beginning of the next decade, due to budgetary issues (3). Therefore, despite the long history of cooperation existing between, NASA, ESA, and individual European countries on scientific programs, including space sciences or Earth observation, the changes in policy and funding at the US-level are going to affect the nature of traditional European-US space cooperation.

Trans-Atlantic space relationships are at a crossroads, particularly due to NASA's plans expressed in its FY 2007 budget request to postpone, and even terminate, several science missions realized in cooperation with Europe. Even if Bush's proposals (released in early February), despite their reams of detail, are merely the opening act of a long bargaining process that will consist of months of loud partisan posturing in Congress, there is little financial latitude this year for improvement. Furthermore, NASA's plans to cancel several missions having an international component, without prior consultation, is not sending a positive message to the international community.

A long-term cooperation in space exploration could provide a unique window of opportunity for increased cooperation and reinforce the trans-Atlantic space partnership - that has rarely been so weak - by fostering a new axis of cooperation. While this would allow reconciling the two oldest space partners, such cooperation would also raise the relationship from a program-to-program cooperative approach to a broader policy level that could be more stable in the long run. To reach this level, the upcoming months will be crucial to reanimate the partnership, and will necessitate an open and honest dialogue to avoid a greater rift in trans-Atlantic space policy.

***

The author, Nicolas Peter, is currently a student in the master's program in international science and technology policy and a senior research assistant at the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University (GWU). He is also a research associate at the Laboratoire Communication et Politique (LCP) in Paris.


Sources

(1) Human Space Exploration Initiative (HSEI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "NASA FY 2007 Budget Proposal - An Analysis." (2006).

(2) Bush, George W. "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery." 14 January 2004.

(3) Peter, N. "What Directions for Cooperation in Space Exploration?" Space News 16, no.46 (21 November 2005).

(4) Correll, R.R., and Peter, N. "Odyssey: Principles for Enduring Space Exploration." Journal of Space Policy 21 (2005): 251-258.{/access}

 

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