A recent briefing at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on Cooperation and Business Opportunities between Korea and U.S. industry made clear how little NASA has adjusted to the realities of the past decade in terms of international cooperation.
A NASA official articulated three guiding principals on space cooperation that really disappointed me. He explained that one of the first criteria used by NASA in electing whether to engage in an international program is that the proposed activity “must have scientific and technical merit.”
I cringed when hearing that. Cooperation with Russia would suggest that any proposed cooperation should firstly be judged on whether it increases the safety of our astronauts. If it does, it is worth serious consideration. When we moved the orbital inclination of Space Station to 51 degrees, to coordinate with the Russians, that increased the safety of the program. So too use of Soyuz as a crew rescue vehicle, and so too overall cooperation with Russia both before and since the Columbia accident and subsequent grounding of the space shuttle fleet. If that is what is meant by technical merit, it should be stated clearly, for too many critics of international cooperation ignore the fact that Russia has made our program safer.
A second guiding principal articulated by the NASA official was that international cooperation will have “no exchange of funds,” though he admitted that “there have been some exceptions.”
Why no exchange of funds? Especially in these fiscally difficult times, NASA should not exclude accepting payment for providing goods and services. And, from the other side, why shouldn’t NASA pay when it does increase the safety of our astronauts, or does have scientific and technical merit or stands to achieve a political or policy goal?
Trying to understand NASA’s hang up over money has haunted me for more time than I care to think about. Why is NASA so virtuous when it comes to realizing some return on our taxpayer funding? Look, to cite one notable example, we had no problem taking direct payments from our allies in support of liberating Kuwait during the first Gulf War. A majority of our incremental costs were paid for by other nations, with direct billing being used. If the Defense and State Departments can fight a war with funding from “international cooperation,” we can also lead a return to the Moon with financial support from trading allies.
One final point from the presentation also seemed dated. It was the slide that stated how international cooperation had to be between government space agencies. Again, why? Other federal agencies work quite well, when appropriate, with foreign companies.
The time for the space agency to operate in the international arena like other federal agencies is long overdue—we owe it to the supporters of space exploration to move into a more realistic era.