In the 1990s the United States collaborative space policy entered an extended period of transition from the earlier era of Cold War, one in which NASA has been compelled to deal with international partners on a much more even footing than ever before.
This was true for several reasons. U.S. preeminence in space technology was rapidly declining, especially in launcher technology as other nations built their own internal capabilities. This was especially true of the European Space Agency’s superb Ariane launcher. This made it increasingly possible for other nations to “go it alone,” as a vernacular expression states.
U.S. commitment to sustained “preeminence” in space activities also waned and significantly less public monies went into NASA missions. The Clinton administration’s “National Space Policy” of September 29, 1996, for example, abandoned the language of preeminence that had been used since the origins of the space race in the 1950s. In addition, NASA’s budget declined in terms of real dollars every year from 1993 to 2000.
Of international cooperative projects that remained, NASA increasingly acceded to the demands of collaborators to develop critical systems and technologies. This overturned a longstanding policy of not allowing partners onto the critical technological path, something that had been flirted with but not accepted in the Space Shuttle development project.
This was in large measure a pragmatic decision on the part of American officials. Because of the increasing size and complexity of projects, according to former NASA international relations chief Kenneth Pedersen in 1992, more recent projects have produced “numerous critical paths whose upkeep costs alone will defeat U.S. efforts to control and supply them.”
Pedersen added, “It seems unrealistic today to believe that other nations possessing advanced technical capabilities and harboring their own economic competitiveness objectives will be amenable to funding and developing only ancillary systems.”
In addition to these important developments, the rise of competitive economic activities in space has mitigated the prospects for future collaborations. The brutal competition for launch business, the cutthroat nature of space applications, and the rich possibilities for space-based economic activities have created a climate in which international ventures may once again become the exception.
Historian John Krige astutely commented in 1998 that “collaboration has worked most smoothly when the science or technology concerned is not of direct strategic (used here to mean commercial or military) importance. As soon as a government feels that its national interests are directly involved in a field of R&D, it would prefer to go it alone.” He also noted that the success of cooperative projects may take as their central characteristic that they have “no practical application in at least the short to medium term.”
I would add that the sole exception to this perspective might be when nations decide that for prestige or diplomatic purposes it is appropriate to cooperate in space. A superb example of this is the effort beginning in 1992 to bring the Russians into the space station program already underway by a consortium of nations as a means of building stronger ties to Russia in the early post-Cold War era.
One of the key conclusions that we might reach about the course of international cooperation between the United States and its international collaborators in space is that it has been an enormously difficult process. I am reminded of the quote attributed to Wernher von Braun, “we can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” Even so, cooperative space endeavors have been richly rewarding and overwhelmingly useful, from all manner of scientific, technical, social, and political perspectives.
Kenneth Pedersen observed in 1983, “international space cooperation is not a charitable enterprise; countries cooperate because they judge it in their interest to do so.” For continued cooperative efforts in space to proceed into the twenty-first century it is imperative that those desiring them define appropriate projects and ensure that national leaders judge them as being of interest and worthy of pursuing them in a cooperative manner.
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.