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The right and wrong stuff for space cooperation

President Barack Obama's international-minded space policy can build on the International Space Station, which has been successful for the "wrong reasons." Analysis by NBC News' James Oberg.
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander of the International Space Station, embraces NASA shuttle commander Ken Ham during a farewell ceremony toward the end of Atlantis' visit to the outpost in May. The space station serves as an example of successful international cooperation in space — but not for the reasons many think.
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander of the International Space Station, embraces NASA shuttle commander Ken Ham during a farewell ceremony toward the end of Atlantis' visit to the outpost in May. The space station serves as an example of successful international cooperation in space — but not for the reasons many think.NASA

President Barack Obama's space policy paper stresses international cooperation as a means of advancing national goals in space. But when are these heavenly marriages advantageous to the United States, and when might they be so harmful that "going it alone" is preferable?

The 14-page report, released Monday, says that spaceflight has already become multinational because of the growth of national (and commercial) players, and the wide array of teaming among these players for different activities. The report’s brief introduction ends with a “pledge of cooperation,” offered “in the belief that with strengthened international collaboration and reinvigorated U.S. leadership, all nations and peoples will find their horizons broadened, their knowledge enhanced, and their lives greatly improved.”

But these fine words collide with still-powerful international distrust, exemplified by the recent flap over China’s role as a potential partner. Last week, NASA had to deny a report that the Russians were inviting the Chinese to become players on the International Space Station, based on their expected ability to docking their own crewed spacecraft to the outpost.

That same week, widespread objections followed the announcement of China’s participation at a NASA-sponsored world conclave on coordination of each country’s space programs.

And now the White House policy paper prominently lists expansion of international cooperation as one of the top goals of the U.S. space program. Such cooperation has proven useful in the past. But expanding cooperation merely for the sake of cooperating, as a goal in itself rather than a means toward a goal, can become an empty (but potentially costly) gesture.

The goals described in the White House report appear more realistic and reassuring. The three main aims are to strengthen U.S. space leadership, identify candidate projects that would benefit from international partners, and dispel misconceptions around the world about U.S. intentions in space through greater transparency and confidence-building measures. These seem to be reasonable and valuable efforts.

Bogus promises of the past
In assessing which future projects could benefit from which candidate partners, it's useful to assess the international track record in space. Old partners such as the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese have proved their worth. They stuck to joint projects even after Washington's course changes and delays multiplied the costs and difficulties enormously.

But how about the Russians? Did they really "save" the International Space Station, or were they more trouble than they were worth? That question requires a cold-blooded calculation of costs and benefits.

The surprisingly heart-warming result is that for this project, the internationalist choice — including the Russian role — was the correct one, but for all the wrong reasons. This time, the United States was lucky. For other projects now under consideration, the "right reasons" must be understood from the beginning, and not just turn up by good fortune and dumb luck.

First of all, the Russian space alliance didn’t make the project faster or cheaper, as was promised when the alliance was forged in 1993. Experience verified what spaceflight guru Norm Augustine observed at the beginning: “I have yet to see a joint international program that saves any money.”

The costs to the U.S. side were significant but have rarely mentioned by NASA. In order to reach a compatible orbit to build the station, space shuttles had to steer so far northward from Florida that they lost up to a third of their cargo-carrying capacity. This required many extra flights — at well over half a billion dollars apiece — to carry hardware that could have been stowed aboard shuttles heading toward the originally planned orbit. At liftoff, it also required a more severe atmospheric climb that put added stress on the shuttle’s insulation system.

Nor are there any real signs that the Russian participation made the station particularly "better." All the revolutionary design features that differentiated the International Space Station from every previous orbital outpost — Skylab, Salyut, Mir — were invented by the American side. These included reprogammable laptop-controllers for changing equipment configurations, massive power and thermal control systems, high-speed communications links that enabled ground scientists to directly operate on board equipment, and even doorways that were big enough to permit the transfer of refrigerator-sized equipment modules into the station and between the modules.

As to learning from the previous Russian experience with long spaceflights, the NASA teams observed and respected their Russian colleagues, and then figured it all out on their own pretty quickly.

Sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia in the mid-1990s was also supposed to prevent a flood of unemployed rocket scientists from seeking work overseas for "rogue state" missile programs. But the people who got the money weren’t missile builders at all, they were space designers. And by the time the money began to arrive, the real missile builders had already been laid off by the hundreds of thousands. There were always more than enough unemployed Russian rocketeers for hire overseas, and they had no trouble "following the money." The limitation was in the budgets and domestic industry of those would-be missile nations.

Making friends in orbit
One of the most persistent and pernicious mythical benefits of international space partnerships is that it promotes peace on Earth. That is, embarking on a complex and expensive joint space project actually tames the governments of unfriendly nations.

The Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 is often portrayed as inspiring politicians in Moscow and Washington to end the Cold War. The space shuttle dockings with Russia's Mir in the late 1990s, and the subsequent Russian amalgamation into the International Space Station, were likewise portrayed as forcing earthside diplomats to be nicer to each other.

Top NASA astronaut Charlie Precourt proclaimed in 1998 that the partnership would force politicians to resolve disputes "that otherwise they wouldn't."

"They’ll look up there and say, ‘Well, we have an investment in that, too. We have to keep this relationship going in a proper direction,’ rather than doing something rash,” Precourt predicted.

In reality, joint space projects actually follow — rather than cause — relaxations of tensions. They are often performed to illustrate the new and improved diplomatic climate. A rooster may think its crowing brings the sunrise, but its performance is the consequence of a larger phenomenon, and not the cause. The same goes for the bird's fellow fliers in the astronaut and cosmonaut corps.

The current "China Question," seen in this light, has a workable solution. If new partners are needed for the space station, invitations to several Asian spacefaring nations may indeed be feasible. South Korea is a promising candidate, and if Beijing is interested (and if they ever do figure out how to perform orbital rendezvous), they can be offered membership along with Taiwan. The only stumbling block to that solution is if Beijing thinks earthside politics is more important than outer-space development. The choice is theirs.

Surprising rewards
So if many of the predicted and advertised benefits of international space partnerships turned out to be bogus, is it worth trying again? It turns out that there are several important justifications that were not expected, but which make the game worthwhile.

Probably the biggest and happiest hardware-related surprise of the space station is how the patched-together design — a Russian segment at one end, a swiftly expanding U.S. segment at the other — has offered unexpectedly strong robustness. It may look like a classic engineering "kluge," and the interfaces may have been lashed together with inelegant rigging. But when push came to shove, boy, did it ever hold together. In the face of failure of systems from either country, the other country's equipment could and did stand in.

The design philosophy here is not to build one integrated vehicle comprising components from a dozen sources. It’s to create a system from separately developed space vehicles, bundled and cross-connected but still vastly different in their engineering cultures. It has worked for the International Space Station, and it can work for future big projects.

There also have been bouts of distrust over the control the Russians have over the project, due to their critical systems. When Congress approved their addition to the space station project, they specified on legislation that it would only be to "enhance rather than enable" the project. NASA agreed, but the space agency quickly broke its promise, putting Russian hardware into the "critical path" of flight operations.

It so happens that U.S. hardware is also in the critical path for the Russian segment, so the control is symmetrical. And however awkward the arrangement often felt, it has worked. The U.S. and Russia have evolved into a "co-dependency" on the station, each side needing the other's participation — a surprisingly stable, if reluctant, relationship.

The space station partnership did not play a measurable role in international diplomacy, but it provided a useful impetus in each partner’s domestic political process. During periods of budget crisis, when local stresses threatened cutbacks or cancellation of each country’s contributions, their arguments to their fellow countrymen referenced their commitment to be reliable international partners. To some degree it was merely prestige, but being known as a reliable high-tech player on the world stage also provides profound commercial and military status.

Practical expectations for partners
Two of the themes called out explicitly in the new policy also have credible roots in the space station experience. Regarding U.S. space leadership, a cold-blooded and cynical view of the space station project (one that is popular in France, by the way) is that it attracted all the optional space-related funding (and then some) from all major space players and directed it to a project that the United States defined, subservient to U.S. desires. There was little left over for independent projects of local interest, as Europe's struggle to finance its own navigation satellite system shows. This was "soft space power" in its highest form, to America's benefit.

The second theme is "transparency," which the new strategy wisely highlights as an important by-product of international cooperation. Intimate insight into the aerospace industries of other nations is a fundamental requirement of big space projects. This has forestalled potential diplomatic clashes over independent space operations that were often misinterpreted, sometimes naively and sometimes for propaganda purposes.

This still can happen. Witness the paranoid propaganda campaigns around the world (particularly in China, it should be noted) about the military X-37B space test. But these accusations were far more bitter in the years before closer international space cooperation.

All of these positive developments were not anticipated prior to the International Space Station. But their realization has underscored the correctness of earlier internationalization programs, even if made, at the time, for the wrong reasons.

If this new space policy pays attention to the actual lessons — rather than the myths — of space partnering in the past, promising projects can be carried out with realistic expectations of benefits.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is also an expert on Soviet and Russian space policy and author of the book "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."