New Opportunities: International Collaboration in Space Exploration

8 March 2010

Presentation by Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency at NASA's Project Management Challenge 2010 Event -“Above and Beyond”- on 9 February 2010 in Galveston, Texas.

If there is one field that ESA can teach the world, it is certainly international cooperation because international cooperation is our daily work:

- ESA gathers 18 countries of Europe working together within the ESA framework, 18 countries of different sizes, different resources, different languages, different talents, even though talent is not proportional to the Gross National Product!

- ESA is working more and more with the European Union, gathering 27 countries.

- ESA is working more and more with more and more international partners:

  • starting with NASA with which we are cooperating since 40 years
  • continuing with Canada, a longstanding associated State to ESA
  • also with Russia with which we are cooperating more and more
  • Japan, China, India, South Korea, Brazil… and all the space and non-space powers with which we are exchanging data.
Ariane 5

We know, at ESA, that international cooperation is difficult, even sometimes very difficult, the difficulties generally increasing with the number of partners, though this is not always true. It is always easier not to cooperate than to cooperate. But, we have learned that it can also be more difficult, if not impossible, to succeed alone.

And we, at ESA, are demonstrating since 40 years that international cooperation can be successful. ESA is a success — as an agency and as a partnership. Some of our success stories are purely European: Ariane 5, Envisat, and Meteosat. Other successes have been achieved through bilateral cooperation, in particular with NASA: Cassini-Huygens, the Hubble Space Telescope. We have also enjoyed success in multilateral cooperation. Undoubtedly, the ISS is the most spectacular of those multilateral successes.

What are the lessons learned from 40 years of experience in international cooperation at ESA? Since my colleague Andreas Diekmann has already addressed some of the lessons learned this morning. I shall focus on the lessons learned relevant to exploration:

- Motivation: The best motivation is to have no alternative to international cooperation, which is frequently the case in Europe. When you have an alternative to cooperation, the motivation may be to share resources, even though ultimately cooperation for the sole sake of saving money can prove disappointing. In the future, there will be fewer and fewer alternatives to international cooperation in space, since we are addressing more and more global issues like climate change. And indeed, exploration is of direct concern to the future of planet Earth and is therefore a global issue.

- Common objectives: Cooperation must start by sharing common objectives. If this sharing does not exist, cooperation is about asking the others to pay to fulfil your own objectives, and there is no chance that such a scheme may work. On the other hand, if you succeed in agreeing on common objectives, there are several models of cooperation, which will enable you to implement these common objectives. Cooperation does not mean uniformity: there are different ways to implement common objectives. At ESA, we have mandatory programmes, optional programmes, programmes involving ESA and national agencies, ESA and international agencies through bilateral and/or multilateral set-ups. All these cooperation models come with different decision-making processes but they all involve the different contributors in the decision. Whatever model you choose to use, there is one common point: these models are project-oriented, and they are built on transparency and trust between the partners.

- Transparency and trust: Transparency is key for cooperation as well as for project management. Transparency is to distribute the right information, at the right place and at the right time. Trust is also key. It avoids or limits bureaucracy. Trust is more difficult to achieve, because it involves personal matters, which brings me to the last aspect of cooperation:

- The importance of personal relationships: No recipe can replace people, and this is the reason why cooperation is not only a collection of recipes. It must become a culture, and even, beyond a culture, it must become an identity. I am proud to say that we have created such an ESA identity.

I am not proposing to extend the ESA model to international exploration, but we are ready to contribute our experience in the evaluation of the potential scenarios for international exploration.

There could be a lot of scenarios of cooperation for international exploration, but I would like to limit the number of scenarios to three basic ones:

- An ideal scenario which could be defined by one common integrated exploration programme to which all members are contributing and which they are managing together. That scenario means commonly agreed objectives, commonly agreed architectures and a commonly agreed work share.

- A minimum scenario where all members are contributing à la carte, deciding and managing their own contribution independently, with just a coordination process based on the Global Exploration Strategy nucleus. Below that minimum level, there is no cooperation.

- An intermediate scenario where members, which have transportation assets, are defining a common transportation policy that they implement together within a commonly agreed work share and commonly agreed interfaces, while the rest of the exploration programme is à la carte. This scenario could take into account the experience of ESA: Transportation is the most integrated part of all space activities in Europe. Transportation being an enabling tool for all space activities, Member States have decided to develop common launchers. There is no national launcher in Europe, while there are national satellites.

For exploration, it is the same: Transportation is key, being an enabling tool, and being the most expensive part of exploration. This is the reason why the intermediate scenario could be an important step towards international exploration. The MoU, that I have signed with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on the possibility to exchange information between ESA and NASA on transportation systems, is a very small step into that direction.

International Space Station

To conclude my remarks, I would like to recall two points: whatever scenario we finally consider for international exploration, it should be based on the partnership of the ISS. This partnership will last longer than the hardware developed for the programme, because it has been consolidated through difficulties and even disasters. No risk should be taken, which could weaken that partnership. Moreover, I think we will need a political leader to take the initiative of setting up a political forum to develop a common vision of space exploration, along which agencies can develop scenarios and architectures. I, for myself, wish that this leader could be the US.

Jean-Jacques Dordain

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