Cooperation in space opens up a world of possibilities

International Space Station seen from Space Shuttle Atlantis
International Space Station
28 April 2010

By Gilles Toussaint/La Libre Belgique, 19 April 2010 - Article translated from French.

Following an effort lasting more than ten years, the immense undertaking that is the International Space Station will be all but finished by the end of this year, a process that has not been entirely trouble-free. From 19 to 21 April [1], scientists, astronauts, and representatives of industry and space agencies will gather in Berlin to discuss the contribution the Station can make to scientific and technological research. Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency since 2003, explains to La Libre Belgique the future of this infrastructure and more broadly his vision for space exploration.

In a sense, has the economic crisis not gone some way to saving the ISS by facilitating Obama’s decision to abandon the Constellation lunar programme?

That is a rather negative way of looking at things. Well before the crisis began, I was already saying that I personally did not want to set an end date for the station. It seemed to me to be particularly inappropriate to do so because it would mean setting a time limit on its usefulness. In my view, it should continue to be used for as long as the costs remain justified by the benefits to the scientific world and to engineers and also in terms of facilitating an international vision of space. It doesn’t make sense to set a date. Moreover, I remain convinced that there will be a future for low Earth orbit activities once the station has come and gone.

Would you say your partners share that view?

When we met in Tokyo in March, we were all agreed in principle. Now we have to look at putting up the funding to match that position.

Continuing with Constellation would have been a death sentence for the ISS, would it not?

Yes, but deciding unilaterally to abandon low Earth orbit and move on to something else having previously got everyone to follow one’s lead, and all because of budget constraints, would have been a very serious step to take. The credibility of the United States when it comes to international cooperation would have been seriously undermined for quite some considerable time. I think that was a major influence on the decision.

So you weren’t a big fan of the project?

Oh yes I was! Listen, I am a fan of everything. I believe that, in any case, we will return to the Moon, and for that matter we will also go to Mars. But if one is to have such objectives one has to establish priorities and for me the priority is to make sure we can continue to use the Station. So Obama’s decision is, in my opinion, perfectly justified, although I would have preferred if he had still wanted to go to the Moon as soon as possible. But, you know, it is not going anywhere. It’s still going to be there for another 100 billion years. If we land on it five years later, it might make a difference to my generation, but in the work we do in the space field the focus is very much on a number of generations at a time.

ATV approaching Space Station
ATV approaching Space Station

The Chinese space programme is moving forward at a terrific rate. There has been talk of them building their own station. Do you think that, from a geopolitical perspective, the ISS can bring about closer relations between China and the United States, as we already saw happen with Russia?

As far as I am concerned, I am in favour of as broad a partnership as possible, starting with China, India and South Korea, but the decision of the station partners will ultimately be political and they will take it collectively. Also, the country concerned would have to want to join with us. Currently, I don’t know whether that is the case, but I see the future of space exploration as global and I do not believe one should consider shutting out anyone who wishes to join in such a great adventure.

Are the United States open to the idea of Chinese participation?

The issue of closer relations is not merely a matter for us in the space field: it is a political matter first and foremost. But, as usual, space could prove to be a prelude to closer relations in other areas.

I see two paradigms when it comes to Armstrong’s landing on The Moon. The first is that this symbol of competition led to the onset of international cooperation in the space field. After 21 July 1969, we began thinking about a cooperation which eventually led to the Apollo/Soyuz link-up in 1975 and that was the first step in improved relations between the United States and the Soviet bloc. Then there were the four partners that took part in the "Freedom" project. This was then merged with the Mir project, in 1993, with a view to building an international space station with five partners. I personally hope we will soon see six flags up there, then seven, then eight, and so on. The second paradigm is that in going to the Moon we discovered the Earth. That was the beginning of the concept of "Planet Earth". That too changed the world for ever. The most important sentence in the whole Apollo programme is not the one uttered by Armstrong when he set foot on the Moon but instead what was said by Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission that took place over Christmas in 1968. When, upon returning from the far side of the Moon, he caught sight of the Earth, he described it as a tiny golf ball floating in the Universe: "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." For me, these are the two pillars: increasingly, everything we do in space is done in a framework of international cooperation and is always focussed on planet Earth.

But now that the ISS is practically finished we seem to be asking what we are going to be able to do up there. There’s a lot of talk of studying the climate, but that wasn’t the aim to begin with…

No, but last November, ESA issued a call for ideas to use the Station to study the climate change problem and we received 44 proposals, which are currently being evaluated. The ISS is a very interesting and useful infrastructure because it is located 400 km from Earth while the closest satellites are 800 km away. It offers us a permanent observatory covering a significant part of the Earth’s zones as well as covering aspects of interest to climatologists. In addition, we will use it to conduct experiments in microgravity, which is an absolutely fascinating world to which scientists have, until now, been denied permanent access. I am sure that they will now take full advantage of the opportunity to make progress in a number of areas. I can’t promise you that within two years we will see major scientific progress taking place, but when has anyone ever won a Nobel Prize after two years work? You need to perform quite a substantial number of experiments and today we can offer a laboratory in that totally unique environment equipped with water, gas and electricity. Also, we really must say that we will continue to use it because I don’t see how you can expect to motivate scientists to sacrifice their time, youth and energy if you tell them they have to hurry up because in five years time their lab will be closed.

Galileo satellite system

The thing about this laboratory is that you have to be able to get to it. What are the obstacles to beginning European crewed flights based on the ATV cargo vehicle?

It’s not just a question of obstacles. First of all one has to ask the question: "Do we actually need to do that at all?" Each partner has to bring something to the space station, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to bring the same thing. The transport we use currently to access the ISS has been developed using the old approach, which is now outmoded. I am calling for us to finally come together to define a joint transport policy.

First of all, we need to agree on our collective needs in terms of cargo and crew both for going to and returning from the ISS and, looking beyond that, for going to the Moon. That is something that has never been done before. Secondly, we need to assess what means the various parties can bring to bear in order to address those needs, which elements are redundant and where there are gaps in what we need to be providing. Thirdly, we need to look at developing a common interface. Currently, the European ATV can only dock with the station using the Russian docking system and not the American one. That makes no sense whatsoever. Last of all, once we have done all of that we will be able to see what elements still need to be provided and what each member of the partnership will be willing to contribute. Then I will have a solid basis with which to go back to the ESA Member States and present them with those needs that will benefit the entire community and appeal to them for funds.

Establishing this type of transport policy will take time. We are prepared for that, however, and indeed when it comes to the ISS all partners currently agree that there is an evident lack in that once the Space Shuttle has been retired, we will no longer have a vehicle capable of bringing back cargo. ESA has therefore decided to work on the development of an ATV able to do just that. Then who knows what will happen. If we have such a joint transport policy and such a system for cargo return, we will have the necessary basis for my successor to be able to propose to the Member States a crewed transport system should we need to develop one. But I think that the other two elements must come first. It is therefore not so much a question of budget, but instead one of getting things in the right order and pursuing things in a logical way.

"It is no longer a race"

Robotic exploration, according to the head of ESA, must come before human exploration. "Once we have decided to aim for far-away destinations, the big problem is to know how to keep humans alive without having to take with them every ounce of what they need from Earth. It is therefore absolutely essential that we learn how to make use of the local environment by sending out robotic missions to see whether we can, in situ, produce oxygen and use the materials we find there, and so on. That is vitally important if we want humans to be able to spend time on the ground and not simply go and plant a flag. I think we are past that stage now."

For Dordain, what is now required for space exploration is to take the time to think things through carefully before taking the next step. "From a technical perspective, we could go to Mars in ten years time but that would mean going in less than perfect conditions. Without alternative propulsion systems, such a mission would be very expensive indeed: I tend to think that it would be better to take things step by step and to first improve on current technologies." Yet at the same time, he explains, it is necessary to set out objectives in terms of the destinations one wants to reach. Without that, it is difficult to sustain technology development programmes over long periods. For that reason the Moon is the "natural intermediate destination" [2] as it would allow us to test out a certain number of new technologies. "But I repeat, time is on our side. It is no longer a race; it is a global endeavour in which all must play their part. Yes, international cooperation is a slow process, but it also brings far greater solidity and durability to the enterprise."

Above all, the space sector must focus on benefits "for the planet and its citizens". The most urgent priority, he insists, is to develop Galileo in order to improve transport safety but also GMES, so that we can monitor the Earth’s environment; another objective must be to develop telecom satellites that bring information to those countries that need it the most. "When it comes to exploration, we are looking a century ahead, we are preparing for the future: it is an endeavour that cuts across so many fields, allowing us to perform science which constantly brings benefits to citizens. Not only that but it is also a fabulous driver for new technologies."

[1] The ISS Symposium mentioned in the article that was supposed to take place on 19-21 April was cancelled due to the problems with air transport at that time.
[2] This interview took place on 13 April. President Obama’s “Space Exploration and Discovery” address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida was delivered on 15 April.

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