Outer Space - Impediments to international cooperation in space



At the same time that critical objectives at both the national and agency levels might be achieved through cooperative space projects both individually and collectively, there were genuine and not inconsiderable impediments to undertaking international programs. The most important was that NASA would lose some of its authority to execute the cooperative program as it saw fit. Throughout its history the space agency had never been very willing to deal with partners, either domestic or international, as equals. It tended to see them more as hindrance than help, especially when they might get in the way of the "critical path" toward any technological goal. R. Buckminster Fuller in his 1982 book Critical Path discussed the evolution of technology involving project scheduling and resource allocation. Assigning an essentially equal-partnership responsibility for the development of some critical system or instrument meant giving up the power to make changes, dictate solutions, and control schedules and other factors. Partnership, furthermore, was not a synonym for contractor management—something agency leaders understood very well—and NASA was not very accepting of full partners unless they were essentially silent or at least deferential. Such an attitude mitigated against significant international cooperation in space efforts, and difficulties arose whenever any project was undertaken.

In addition to this concern, some technologists at NASA, but even more so at the U.S. Department of State, expressed fears that bringing foreign nations into any significant space project really meant giving those nations technical knowledge that only the United States held. Only a few nations were spacefaring at all, and only a subset of those had launch capabilities. Many American leaders voiced reservations about the advisability of ending technological monopolies. The prevention of technology transfer in the international arena was an especially important issue to be considered.

NASA officials understood that European space leaders were aware of these issues and that the latter understandably took a guarded approach toward dealing with American overtures in space. They also believed that this watch-and-wait attitude was not solely due to the United States, although it may have been the deciding factor, but also related to the unique difficulties of European space activities. Senior NASA officials were also convinced that the history of European involvement in space had been marked by difficulties in obtaining long-term commitments to specific programs in which participating nations had a reasonable part. And long-term, highly focused projects required centralized management capable of enforcing order on a diverse set of interests. Americans recognized that NASA had its own difficulties on this score, but with national and language barriers added in, the demands were daunting. Finally, the costs of involvement in such endeavors with the United States were not inconsiderable. The financial, organizational, and political issues of European space activity had long been understood by leaders in the field, but they had not been fully resolved. Unfortunately, NASA's efforts have long been insufficient to fully resolve them.



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