Heads of Space Agencies Panel Highlights Benefits of International Cooperation but Political Tensions Persist

IAC 2019 Heads of Agencies panel. Credit: NASA TV.

One theme was clear at the Heads of Agencies panel discussion at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, international cooperation is important as humanity expands further into space. However, one could not but sense the undercurrent that national ambitions and political tensions could cloud some future cooperative efforts.

Not one, but two Heads of Agencies Panels

For the first time at the annual International Astronautical Congress there are two Heads of Agencies panels. The first panel, held on Monday, included leaders from the leading space agencies; Host, Jim Bridenstine of NASA, Canada’s Sylvain Laporte, Sergey Krikalev from Russia, S. Somanath from the Indian Space Research Organisation, Johann-Dietrich Woerner from the European Space Agency space and Hiroshi Yamakawa from Japan.

Notably absent was China’s representative, Wu Yanhua, Vice Administrator, China National Space Administration. Jean-Yves Le Gall, President of the International Astronautical Federation, and one of two moderators for the panel, stated that Mr. Yanhua had a schedule conflict and could not make it. However, Quartz is reporting that visa issues for Chinese and Russian delegates were talking a long time to process. Le Gall did stress though that there was plenty of representation from China among the 6,000 delegates attending.

Visa issues are not an uncommon problem, and plagued the IAC in 2014 when it was held in Toronto.

The other Heads of Agencies panel is for emerging nations which was held earlier today. That panel featured space leaders from Nigeria, UAE, Thailand, South Africa and Brazil.

US Nationalism

This year, the primary Heads of Space Agencies panel followed the very nationalistic talk by Vice President Mike Pence at the morning opening ceremonies.

Of course the US would, and should, take a bow for its 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon and its many other accomplishments. However, Pence’s speech was very US centric and nationalistic in tone. NASA Watch editor Keith Cowing, an American, titled his blog post “Pence Speech To International Conference Mostly About America.”

In his speech Pence stated “and as I stand before you today, as we remember the past, I’m proud to report that the United States of America is renewing the legacy of those courageous space pioneers and all they represent. Because under President Donald Trump’s leadership, America is leading in space once again.”… “And earlier this year, President Trump made it the policy of this administration to return to the Moon by 2024, ensuring that the next man and the first woman on the Moon will both be American astronauts.”

He then stated later in his speech “you know, when President Trump revived the National Space Council, he said that he believed, as I do, that, ‘It is America’s destiny…to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.’  And American history has proven that out.  But to be clear, our vision is to be the leader amongst freedom-loving nations on the adventure into the great unknown.”

Nationalism would later be a topic in the Heads of Agencies panel Q&A.

Bridenstine et al tout international cooperation

These panels generally feature an update on the what each national agency has accomplished the past year followed by a Q&A.

While Vice President Pence was very nationalistic, NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine took a more international cooperative tone.

He spent most of remarks pitching the Artemis return to the moon program and noted that Japan had just joined, and that he was encouraging the Europeans to join. Canada was the first international partner to join.

Bridenstine said the Lunar Gateway is being designed to last 15 years and could last longer. It’s using an open architecture so that other nations can propose additions, even nations with small space programs.

Heads of space agencies meet at the International Astronautical Congress.
Heads of space agencies meet at the International Astronautical Congress. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

Leaders from Japan, Indian and Russia also touted the international cooperation card.

Laporte holds court

While Bridenstine focused solely on the Artemis moon program and getting international partners on board, Canada’s Sylvain Laporte spoke at length about the changes in Canada’s program from the last year.

This included Canada’s new space strategy, the Lunar Gateway, WildFireSat and pretty much every other highlight. In fact, no leader held the stage for as long as Laporte, an unusual occurrence. He spoke for 9 1/2 minutes, nearly twice as long as Bridenstine.

Laporte also spent some time talking about astronaut space health research and Canada’s long record on the International Space Station in this area. He then focused on extending that to the moon saying “our lunar program also gets us into a much more intense position with space health. We clearly see that investments in space health also means investments for illnesses and cures for illnesses back down on Earth, so we’ve dialled up our investments on space health. Canada’s been on the ISS for 20 years and for most of that 20 years we’ve used our allocation of time and resources on space health. So we’re going to not just continue that research, but dial it up and potentially get into other areas of interest for space medicine, again with a direct line of sight of taking whatever we build for keeping astronauts safe and healthy up in space, and a direct line of sight to bring that down to, to us on the, on Earth.”

Matt Bamsey on food production in space.

Laporte then mentioned something we haven’t heard from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in some time. He said “we’re also going to get back into food production.” Canada has expertise in this area including at Guelph University where Mike Dixon manages the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility. As well, Matt Bamsey, a Senior Project Manager at the Canadian Space Agency has extensive expertise in this area at the CSA and with the German space agency (DLR) where he was the Chief Systems Engineer of the EDEN ISS project.

This may be Laporte’s last IAC as head of the CSA. His term at the CSA expires in the new year, and at this time it’s unknown if he’ll want to continue on, or if the government wants him to continue. SpaceQ asked him that question at the recent Montreal Space Symposium, but he effectively evaded answering the question.

If this was his last appearance at the IAC has the head of Canada’s space program, he did a good job on the panel at promoting Canadian interests.

ESA’s and the future

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Johann-Dietrich Woerner chose to focus on the “unknown” future. He spoke of ESA’s four pillars and how it forms the narrative he must sell at the upcoming ESA Ministerial meeting Space 19+. Those four pillars include;

  • Science and Exploration: comprising Space Science and Human and Robotic Exploration;
  • Safety and Security: comprising Space Safety, Safety and Security Applications, and Cybersecurity;
  • Applications: comprising Telecommunication, Earth Observation, Navigation; and
  • Enabling and Support – comprising Technology, Space Transportation and Operations.

Russia, China, India and political tensions

Russia’s Sergey Krikalev can understand China’s visa issues. In 2014 he was denied a visa to attend the IAC in Toronto.

While all the leaders on the panel touted international cooperation, political tensions do exist between nation states on the panel.

Canada has issues with Russia over the annexation of Crimea. The US has issues with Russian interference with the 2016 election. India and China have ongoing border issues, etc.

In space though, political tensions between have mostly taken a backseat. Russia and the US work well together on the International Space Station. Will that continue? One would hope so, but there is a political undercurrent that might be making that harder in the future.

When a question from the audience asked Sergey Krikalev if Russia would partner on the gateway, there was laughter amongst the panel members and Krikalev replied “we are planning to participate in Gateway, we did not have, we don’t have final decision how and which way, but for sure what we said before is that international cooperation is important. Ahh it’s important for Russia to stay together with out partners, and of course we will develop our own national program. And the problem now is that this program need to be adjusted to each other. So we need to, uh, clarify what we are going to do with uh uh Russian program and see how this program will be joined together with Gateway program.”

Krikalev touched on an important point. While everyone wants to cooperate, each nation has its own program and goals. And clearly there has been a nationalistic movement happening with political leadership in India, China and Russia and now the US. If each of those countries wants to be seen as “the” space leader, how do you build cooperation on a program like US Artemis moon program? The Artemis program goal of landing humans on the moon by 2024 is specific in that its Americans first.

At the moment Canada and Japan have signed on the Artemis program. But Russia, China, and India have not joined, yet. And while the European Space Agency and its member nations are providing the Orion service module for the US Space Launch System, they too have not joined the Artemis program.

Political tensions between some leading space nations have increased in recent years. Nationalistic sentiment is strong. What will that mean for large programs like Artemis?

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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