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Mars exploration illustration
Can an international space agency realistically conduct a human mission to Mars? (credit: NASA)

More international delusions

This summer, the French establishment’s newspaper, Le Monde, has been publishing a series of articles on the future. Some of these are excellent, such as the one by Yves Edues on Japanese robots helping old people in a society where there are not enough young people to care for them. On August 5th Michel Alberganti published his ideas of what the first human mission to Mars will look like. As far as the technical aspects of the article go, they are pretty mundane: some of these ideas were laid out with more verve by Robert Zubrin a decade ago, others, such as nuclear propulsion, come from Sean O’Keefe’s playbook.

What is more interesting is to examine how Alberganti sees the political context of a future human Mars mission. He seems to think that the first humans on Mars will be part of something he calls IASA (International Aeronautics and Space Administration). The reference to NASA is obvious, but the reasoning behind the idea is left, perhaps with good reason, unsaid. Alberganti imagines a five-person crew made up of an American, a Brazilian, a Chinese, an Indian, and a Englishman. One has to wonder why he imagines that, in 2035, there will a shortage of Russian cosmonauts? Or, for that matter, a lack of French spationauts?

In any case, why does he think that a future Mars mission will necessarily be an international endeavor? Why does anyone on Earth need a new version of ESA in order to explore the solar system? Norman Augstine’s Law number 26 says, “If a sufficient number of management layers are superimposed on top of each other, it can be assumed that disaster is not left to chance.” If IASA were ever to come into existence, it might follow ESA’s example and do everything the Americans or Russians do, but ten or twenty years later. Of course, if the US were somehow forced into membership there would be no nation to be jealous of and to try and catch up to, so the organization would have little, if any, motivation to go anywhere.

Why does anyone on Earth need a new version of ESA in order to explore the solar system?

This brings up the whole question of how much international cooperation is compatible with actually getting anything done. In spite of their post-Soviet problems, the Russians have maintained a very high level of expertise and are now looking to sell it on the open market. The Chinese are buying some elements and the Americans have had considerable success incorporating the RD-180 engine into the Atlas 5. The Europeans have been buying launch services from them, and have been trying to negotiate a “privileged partnership”. For the moment Russia is sitting pretty: naturally they are taking advantage of their position to try and make money. Quoi de plus naturel?

Meanwhile ESA has decided to cut off cooperation with NASA on their planned Mars rover, using the excuse that American arms export regulations are too onerous. ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) is indeed a pain, but instead of trying to work with the US to establish a solid framework of agreements among Western nations on what can and cannot be exported and to whom, the Europeans have decided to use ITAR as a pretext to build satellites with no US parts and to export them to China and who knows who else in the future.

For a different view of this problem check out Louis Friedman’s piece in the latest issue of The Planetary Society’s magazine The Planetary Report. He points out—correctly, I believe—that “today, because of ITAR, Cassini-Huygens probably would not be possible.” However, when that mission was being planned the idea of space cooperation with India would have seemed absurd, yet that relationship is growing just as the relationship with ESA is beginning to fade. ITAR is not a wholly insurmountable obstacle, given enough political goodwill.

Friedman also points out that the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) is a serious obstacle to cooperation with Russia on the ISS. He may have written this before Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the former head of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, pointed out that the INA has failed in its objective and it’s time to try something else. The White House has come out with some suggestions to modify or eliminate the INA, but that will be up to Congress. It will be interesting to see if Congressional leaders want to make time for comprehensive hearings and debate on this issue. Alternatively, they could decide to quietly include the modifications to INA in some sort of omnibus budget bill. However, they could decide that the whole question is too complicated and decide to do nothing.

International space projects present many opportunities for the leakage of militarily useful technology, and getting the balance right between cooperation and security is always hard.

This debate touches on several very old issues that just will not go away. One is the natural tension between scientists, who tend to want maximum levels of international cooperation, and the national security establishment, which wants to keep tight control over the proliferation of technology and knowledge that strengthens future enemies. Another related issue is the desire of companies, entrepreneurs, or even nations to freely sell whatever they can develop or make. One notable example was Britain’s 1946 sale of jet engines to the Soviet Union, which led to the deaths of hundreds of American flyers a few years later in Korea.

International space projects present many opportunities for the leakage of militarily useful technology, and getting the balance right between cooperation and security is always hard. Alberganti’s fantasy IASA would not be able to deal any better with these issues than the real existing space bureaucracies.