The Transatlantic divide on the final frontier

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The American-European partnership has been vital in the development of space exploration in the last half-century, and its importance will only grow as space agencies set their sites on more distant targets such as Mars, writes David Wemer.

David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Nearly five decades after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, space exploration continues to captivate and inspire people across the world. For the two largest civilian space actors, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), the last five years have been particularly fruitful, including NASA’s mission into interstellar space and the ESA’s dramatic comet landing.

Despite these successes, there is a damaging undercurrent: a mixture of political interference and dueling visions for the future of space exploration has soured relations between the American and European agencies. Policymakers on both sides need to repair this relationship or risk severely inhibiting NASA and the ESA’s ability to continue exploring our galaxy and universe.

Tension began in the early 2000s, when the ESA and the European Union launched plans for Galileo, a global navigation satellite system, to rival the American Global Positioning System (GPS). The project, motivated by commercial prospects and concerns over GPS’s military control, was opposed by many in Washington due to fears that the system was an expensive duplicate of GPS and vulnerable to use by terrorists. When European leaders approved the project anyway, the United States dropped its opposition, but controversy remains.

Then NASA-ESA relations took a serious hit in 2010 when the Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program, which included a plan to build a permanent lunar base, in favor of a singular focus on placing humans on Mars by the 2030s. Although perhaps more captivating to an American audience, the shift was disappointing to the ESA, which is much more interested in further human exploration of the Moon.

Despite the ESA’s limited involvement in NASA’s Orion program, which aims to take astronauts to Mars, and considerable interest in non-manned Mars missions, the ESA has made it clear that its human spaceflight programs will focus on the Moon for now. These differing priorities have already led European space officials to work more closely with other agencies such as Roscosmos (Russia) and the Chinese National Space Administration. The ESA already refers to Roscosmos as the “ESA’s first partner in its efforts to ensure long-term access to space,” and is partnering with the Russians on the ExoMars unmanned expedition after NASA unexpectedly canceled its participation in 2012. The ESA recently announced its desire to participate in the Chinese space station Tiangong-1, despite foot-dragging on the American proposal to extend the International Space Station to 2024, to which both Japan and Russia have agreed.

Amidst budget cutting on both sides of the Atlantic, NASA and the ESA cannot afford to have a weakening relationship. NASA will need European funds, expertise, and manpower to reach Mars by the 2030s. Likewise, the ESA will continue to depend on NASA not just for technological expertise, but also for the inspiration NASA’s missions can provide European citizens, who otherwise may not see value in human spaceflight. But politics, not the scientists or engineers of these agencies, caused this deterioration of relations, and policymakers must fix it.

On the American side, NASA desperately needs stable, long-term funding. Although spared deep cuts, NASA can never hope to achieve its lofty goals should it continue to receive one-year stopgap budgets. Furthermore, if the next administration endorses the “Journey to Mars”, it should allocate the funding necessary to achieve it, rather than forcing NASA to continually delay the project. A firm political commitment can also help prevent a repeat of the Constellation fiasco, where partners, especially in Europe, were blindsided by such a dramatic policy change.

Europe also needs to clarify its space policy structure. The European Union’s foray into European space policy via the Galileo project has further complicated the already messy relationship between the ESA and its individual national space agencies. European politicians should clearly identify the appropriate partner for NASA, so that American space officials do not have to engage three different actors (ESA, European Union, national agencies) for each project.

Finally, a good deal of compromise on future projects is needed. ESA should support NASA’s historic “Journey to Mars”, which would not be a singularly American triumph, but an achievement for all of humanity. Conversely, NASA should recognise that many nations, not just Europe, have considerable interest in having a “Moon landing” moment of their own, and NASA should support these efforts. The ESA should join its other partners in extending the International Space Station’s lifespan to 2024, while the United States should soften its opposition to ESA working with Russia and China.

The American-European partnership has been vital in the development of space exploration in the last half-century, and its importance will only grow as space agencies set their sites on more distant targets such as Mars. Unless policymakers take the necessary measures to repair this relationship, the dreams of new missions and discoveries may turn out to be nothing but mere fantasies.