In the 1990s, Jeffrey Manber acted as a go-between for Russia’s RSC Energia, the aerospace giant that put man in space during the Soviet era and continued to produce rugged, reliable space hardware as the Berlin Wall crumbled. Manber was an in-house capitalist for the old communists who still ran Energia in those early days of the Russian federation, representing them in the West and elsewhere as they started selling their wares on the open market. As the U.S.and its traditional space partners dithered over the design of Space Station Freedom, Manber was selling time in space on the Mir orbital station.
Jeff continues to maintain his interest in spaceflight and the international cooperation that often seems much easier outside Earth’s atmosphere than on the surface. He’ll be blogging here from time to time on the latest developments in the field, drawing on his expertise on Russia and his recent ventures into new areas, including China. Please feel free to join the conversation.
--Frank Morring, Jr.
When Frank Morring and I first began discussing my contributing a blog focusing on the international aspects of space exploration, I was, to be honest, more intrigued by the media platform than the opportunity to contribute editorial content on a regular basis.
The blog offers the chance for an immediacy or front row seat that a printed magazine just cannot. Done correctly, a blog writer will shed light on just why a particular event is critical. Or make clear a trend that is sweeping through the marketplace in a way that a magazine reporter just cannot. There were many times during my overseas travels that I wished I could communicate back home on the sweeping differences among our space partners towards working with, and against, the American space program.
Let me begin with a still-timely anecdote told to me by the former head of international relations for NASA, Richard Barnes. We used to occasionally get together for a sushi lunch in Georgetown, and during one such lunch we argued over the reasons for the apparent stall in the progress of the American space program during the space shuttle era. At the time, I was representing the giant Russian space company RSC Energia as it began its marketing overtures to NASA. Despite its budget woes, Energia’s array of launch vehicles, orbiting space station Mir, and in-house knowledge gave it a program momentum NASA seemed to lack at the time. Barnes wondered what sort of perspective my working so closely with the Russians had provided.
A bit facetiously, I told Barnes that part of our problem was our inability to recognize that our own space roots were foreign. In order to implement the Apollo program, NASA had used the core of the German space experience. We seemed not to have ever successfully implanted those foreign roots into our own institutions due to a host of reasons, including the inherent competition between civilian and military institutions, among a half dozen other political factors.
Barnes said nothing further on the subject until our next lunch. He had obviously been giving the somewhat rude comment some thought. He told me he had dismissed my comment until remembering an incident that had taken place around 1970. The State Department had called, asking NASA to arrange a meeting between the West German ambassador, and the directors of Marshall Space Flight Center, Kennedy Space Center and some key Apollo program directors. “And don’t forget a translator,” was the final admonition from the State Department.
Several weeks later the meeting took place. On the American side were Marshall Director Wernher von Braun, Kennedy Director Kurt Debus, and Eberhard Rees, a senior program manager on Apollo. After the polite introductions with the ambassador, the men all began chatting in German. The translator, realized a shocked Barnes, was for him, not the visiting foreign ambassador.
Wernher von Braun (Credit: NASA)
The reliance on former senior German officials to reach the Moon would have at one time seemed as improbable as our dependency today on the Russians for space station operations. Right now, it seems just as improbable that in the future NASA senior managers will need to understand Chinese.
Yet these sorts of realities are often overlooked by American space planners. In the coming years we will have to navigate the merits of cooperation with India and China and a continued dependency on Russian space assets, as well as understand better the requirements of our European allies. Absorbing more than the weekly data points of the news will be essential, and a conversation from a blog like this seems a good way to begin.