Outer Space - Toward a trajectory for cooperative efforts in the 1970s

With the successful completion of the Apollo program, everyone realized that the United States was the unquestioned world leader in scientific and technological virtuosity, and continued international competition seemed pointless. President Richard M. Nixon, who took office in January 1969, made it clear that there would be during his leadership no more Apollo-like space efforts. Coupled with this was the desire of those working for a continuation of an aggressive space exploration effort, and the result, predictably, was the search for a new model. While successfully continuing to tie space exploration to foreign relations objectives, now the linkage would be based more on cooperation with allies rather than competition with the nation's Cold War rival. From the 1970s NASA leaders increasingly emphasized visible and exacting international programs. All of the major human space flight efforts, and increasingly as time progressed minor projects, have been identified with international partnerships, particularly with America's European allies.

The European Space Agency was created in 1975 after the space race of the Cold War gave way to worldwide cooperation. Its aims are to provide cooperation in space research and technology. Its ten founding members were France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland. Ireland, Austria, Norway, Finland, and Portugal joined later, and Canada is considered a cooperating state. The agency acts for Europe in a global way by promoting creative interaction and collaboration with other global space agencies, aerospace industries, and civilian space activities. In addition, there is a cooperation of international space law and a practical sharing of resources, research, and personnel.

The Cold War context in which the U.S. civil space program arose in 1958 ensured that foreign policy objectives dominated the nature of the activity. This led to the need for cooperative ventures with U.S. allies. The U.S. Congress said as much in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the legislation creating NASA. In this chartering legislation Congress inserted a clause mandating the new space agency to engage in international cooperation with other nations for the betterment of all humankind. This legislation provided authority for international agreements in the broad range of projects essential for the development of space science and technology in a naturally international field. NASA's charter provided the widest possible latitude to the agency in undertaking international activities as the means by which the agreed goal could be reached. The scope of NASA's international program has been fortified since that time by repeated involvement with the United Nations, bilateral and multilateral treaties, and a host of less formal international agreements.

The central question for the United States has always been how best to use space exploration as a meaningful foreign policy instrument. At times an odd assemblage of political, economic, and scientific-technological objectives emerged to guide the development of international programs. The most fundamental of these objectives were the overarching geopolitical considerations, without which there would have been no space exploration program at all, much less a cooperative effort. Cooperative projects in space were thought to create a positive image of the United States in the international setting, an image that in the early years of the space age was related to the greater battle to win the "hearts and minds" of the world to the democratic-capitalistic agenda, and after the Cold War to ensure continued goodwill between the United States and the European community. Such cooperation also was thought to encourage both European unity and American relations to collective European entities.

Equally important, the United States pursued two overarching economic objectives with its cooperative space efforts. First, cooperative projects expanded the investment for any space project beyond that committed by the United States. (Kenneth S. Pedersen, NASA director of international programs in the early 1980s, opined that "by sharing leadership for exploring the heavens with other qualified spacefaring nations, NASA stretched its own resources and was free to pursue projects which, in the absence of such sharing and cooperation, might not be initiated.") Second, cooperative projects might also help to improve the balance of trade by creating new markets for U.S. aerospace products. Finally, a set of important scientific and technological objectives have motivated U.S. international cooperative efforts in space, including the idea that such efforts enhance the intellectual horsepower applied to any scientific question, thereby increasing the likelihood of reaching fuller under-standing in less time. These initiatives also have helped to shape European space projects along lines compatible with American goals, encourage the development of complementary but different experiments from European scientists, and ensure that multiple investigators throughout the international partnership make observations that contribute to a single objective.

In light of these macro-national priorities, NASA has always wrestled with how best to implement the broad international prospects mandated in legislation and polity in line with its own specific history and goals. NASA leadership developed very early, and it remained in place until an international partnership was required to build the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 1990s. As a result of that history, a set of essential features have guided the agency's international arrangements with European partners, among them, that cooperation is undertaken on a project-by-project basis, not on an ongoing basis for a specific discipline or general effort; that each cooperative project must be both mutually beneficial and scientifically valid; that scientific-technical agreement must precede any political commitment; that funds transfers will not take place between partners, but each will be responsible for its own contribution to the project; that all partners will carry out their part of the project without technical or managerial expertise provided by the other; and that scientific data will be made available to researchers of all nations involved in the project for early analysis.

From the NASA leadership's point of view, moreover, cooperative projects offered two very significant advantages in the national political arena. First, at least by the time of the lunar landings, the leadership recognized that every international partnership brought greater legitimacy to the overall project. This important fact was not lost on NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine in 1970, for instance, when he was seeking outside sponsorship of the space shuttle program and negotiating international agreements for parts of the effort. Second, although far from being a coldly calculating move, agreements with foreign nations could also help to insulate space projects from drastic budgetary and political changes. American politics, which are notoriously rambunctious and shortsighted, are also enormously pragmatic. Dealing with what might be a serious international incident resulting from some technological program change is something neither U.S. diplomats nor politicians relish, and that fact could be the difference between letting the project continue as previously agreed or to dicker over it in Congress and thereby change funding, schedule, or other factors in response to short-term political or budgetary needs. The international partners, then, could be a stabilizing factor for any space project, in essence a bulwark to weather difficult domestic storms.

Perhaps the physicist Fritjof Capra's representative definition of a social paradigm is appropriate when considering the requirements for space projects in the United States in the aftermath of the Apollo Moon landings. While Apollo was seen as an enormous success from a geopolitical and technological standpoint, NASA had to contend with a new set of domestic political realities for its projects thereafter, and a radical alteration had taken place in what Capra described as the "constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the way the community organizes itself." International cooperative projects helped NASA cope with that changing social paradigm.

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