“We are working together, and we are pursing a variety of different objectives in terms of exploration including Mars, and including Jupiter satellites, a great many things that we are not prepared to give out at this point,” he says.
Roscosmos has approval from the Russian government to work with the Europeans, he says, noting that President-elect Vladimir Putin is expected to continue in his second term the strong support he gave the Russian space program during his first term in office.
“There has been no impact in the Roscosmos standing whatsoever,” he says of the election results.
While most of the changes in U.S. space policy have originated in the White House, a key element of that policy was drafted on Capitol Hill. Legislation spearheaded on human-rights grounds by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, prohibits the agency from spending any funds to cooperate with China.
That does not sit well with NASA's partners on the ISS, who say work on the space station and the next steps in human exploration should be open to the only other nation, aside from the U.S. and Russia, that has launched humans to orbit. Those views were on display in a heads-of-agency panel during the exploration conference.
“China is a big space power with a lot of capabilities,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of ESA. “A partnership cannot be sustainable if it is a closed partnership. It was good to open the partnership of the Space Station Freedom, at that time, to Russia. The partnership cannot be closed.”
Popovkin agreed, as did Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency, who noted that his government is looking at expanding its trade relations with China. “It's prudent for us to explore the possibility of working together with China,” says MacLean, a former space shuttle astronaut.
Despite the uncertainty over details of the U.S. direction in space, the agency chiefs and their surrogates at the conference here agreed that international cooperation is the only way to move beyond low Earth orbit to explore the Solar System, with both humans and robotic spacecraft. As long as building and launching spacecraft remains as expensive as it is today, cooperation will be essential for exploration.
But as Dordain says, it is difficult and slow to accomplish, something he has learned as head of a 19-nation agency. Among the issues that complicate cooperation are the need for an equitable return on the public money invested in space and the difficulty coordinating the disbursement of funds when countries have different budget cycles and appropriations processes. Russia may be ready to work with Europe, says Popovkin, but the joint project must await the meeting of ESA ministers in November for final authority to proceed.
Aside from that bilateral Mars program, the Russian space chief argues that the next big international exploration effort should build on the past 40-plus years of lunar exploration—and not repeat the sortie missions of the Apollo era.