In Colorado this week many of the leaders of the international space industry gather. Senior officials from government, from the civil programs, from the military, have come together to celebrate what remains an extremely unique industry. But I wonder how many of these space leaders, while in Colorado, can see the shadow from another meeting, this one taking place in London?
For the reality is, as never before, that the future direction of international space exploration will be determined by the men and women gathering for the G-20 Summit, not those in Colorado. I don’t like it. I don’t like that space exploration has for so long been a tool to be used, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes expertly, by politicians. But in the midst of the economic upheavals sweeping the globe, we will find that space is a convenient diplomatic tool by everyone from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Here’s some of the ways that the economic realities might impact on the space industry:
--America’s need to garner Russia’s help in supplying our forces in Afghanistan, and cut our domestic spending, could lead the Obama administration to outsource the task of carrying astronauts to and from the space station permanently to Russia;
--China's increased economic aggressiveness could easily result in the Obama administration relaxing protectionist trade policies regarding U.S. satellites using Chinese launch vehicles;
--ESA, influenced by an increasingly protectionist Sarkozy, might not be so willing to cooperate on international programs with non ESA members, especially with NASA;--Unpredictable currency upheavals could result in prime contractors and government space agencies focusing for the first time on currency hedging;
--Frequency allocation issues and spectrum conflicts may heat up as governments are hungry for some return on the billions spent on space products;
--India, still having cash and a well-defined program, may well find its voice more influential against ESA and NASA;
--And what of Ukraine, can it survive a collapsing currency and the moves by Russia and remain an independent supplier of space goods and services? Is Europe and ESA now less likely to assist a Ukraine when concerns mount over employment levels in western Europe?
--Will the trend towards protectionism impact the inevitable discussions on ending the current ITAR regime? And so on.
Now, none of these issues will be discussed in London, rather these are the tertiary discussions at best that will spring from G20, to spread out across the industrial landscape and shape our space program for the coming decade. Sure, it’s pretty good that the space industry has long been bankrolled by the deep pockets of governments, but as American companies in commercial sectors are today discovering, being dependent on politicians is not always the most enticing situation.