Future Tense

When We Explore Space, We Go Together

Leaving Earth requires international collaboration.

Space Station Crew Celebrates the Holidays
Members of the Expedition 50 crew aboard the International Space Station celebrated the 2016 holidays together with a festive meal, among them NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.


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The next NASA rover to Mars will launch in 2020. It will be built in the United States, and it will measure wind with a tool from Spain, study rock chemistry with an instrument partially built by the French, and examine the subsurface with a sounder from Finland. This kind of international mashup is actually fairly typical for space missions, which are typically composed of scientists and instruments from countries all over the world.

Partnerships with international space agencies have always been key to NASA’s success. (Little-known fact: The first flag deployed on the moon was that of Switzerland, as part of a solar wind experiment with Apollo 11.) When you are exploring space, going it alone has never been, and will never be, an option.

When it comes to peering outside our solar system, the partnerships continue. The stunning recent announcement of a seven-planet system around the star TRAPPIST-1, a mere 39.5 light-years away from Earth, involved a multinational team and telescopes, both in space and on the ground. A Belgian astronomer originally discovered some of the planets using a telescope in Chile, then further observations with the Paranal telescope in Chile and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope confirmed the seven-planet system. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone, where liquid water, critical for life, could be stable on the surface.

The flagship example of partnerships in space is literally the flagship: the International Space Station. The U.S., Russian, Japanese, Canadian, and European space agencies have been operating this amazing orbiting laboratory for more than 16 years, continuously human tended. The astronauts have come from 18 different nations, and experiments from 93 countries have been carried out on the ISS. Every day, astronauts on the International Space Station carry out research that will enable humans to travel to Mars and back. In the microgravity environment of space, our bones lose density, our muscles waste, our cardiovascular system undergoes change. Research carried out on the ISS is helping us develop ways to mitigate these human health effects, which will make it possible for humans to arrive at Mars, after a seven- to eight-month journey, healthy and ready to cope with any potential emergency.

The International Space Exploration Coordination Group comprises 14 space agencies, including the expected bodies like NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian space agency. But it also involves space agencies from China, India, South Korea, and Ukraine. The group has produced a road map for human exploration beyond Earth and provides a forum for space agencies to coordinate efforts. While some nations are more focused on the Moon and some on Mars, all realize that no single agency is capable of such a large undertaking alone.

In addition to multilateral efforts like ISECG, NASA has bilateral cooperation with individual space agencies. For instance, the European Space Agency is providing the service module for the Orion capsule that will fly on the Space Launch System rocket to take humans beyond low Earth orbit. The first uncrewed test flight was to be in 2018, but NASA is now investigating how soon it could conduct the first test flight of SLS and Orion with a crew onboard.

The only space agency NASA cannot have bilateral agreements with is China, thanks to U.S. law. The Chinese space agency does work closely with most of NASA’s foreign partner space agencies, and the previous NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, spoke publicly about his frustration with the policy. At a public forum with other space agencies in 2015, he stated, “If we are not collaborating with everybody, we’ll be on the outside looking in.”

One of the chief barriers to international cooperation between space agencies is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Some space technologies are covered under these regulations, which were put in place to prevent the export of weapons systems and related technologies. U.S. companies that sell launch services or satellites have complained about the restrictions, which they feel cause them to lose business to international competitors. Even NASA has come under scrutiny for possible ITAR violations. The ITAR restrictions are confusing and seem overly broad, making it more difficult to set up cooperation with international scientists on missions. The ITAR regulations are set up under U.S. law, making it ultimately the responsibility of Congress to decide how much to loosen or tighten the restrictions. Despite these challenges, when it comes to overall goals in exploration, NASA will lead, in part because its budget far exceeds the budgets of its partner space agencies.

While the head of the European Space Agency has called for a “moon village” to be the exploration priority, NASA continues to set its sights on Mars, with a plan for the first crewed mission to Mars in the early 2030s. NASA does plan to put the precursor for a Mars transfer vehicle in orbit around the Moon in the mid-2020s, providing a stepping stone for international or commercial partners that want to venture down to the lunar surface. But Mars remains the priority goal, with the first orbital mission followed by astronauts to the surface in the late 2030s, to search for evidence of past life on Mars. The private sector will play a key role in this venture, with SpaceX planning to send an uncrewed Dragon capsule to the Martian surface in 2018 in partnership with NASA. SpaceX’s capability to land its first-stage rocket boosters back on Earth is helping them to develop the needed entry, descent, and landing capabilities for Mars.

Observing this planet is also a closely coordinated effort. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites and the Group on Earth Observations provide forums for space agencies or offices from around the world to discuss open data policies, coordinate observations, inter-calibrate instruments, and allow data comparison and validation. These coordination efforts are becoming even more critical, as we cope with changing weather and patterns of growing food, and sea level rise due to human-caused climate change. There can be more immediate payoffs, too, particularly when it comes to disasters. During humanitarian crises and natural disasters, the space agencies (more than 15 of them right now) with Earth-observing satellites that have signed the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters can shift their focus and prioritize processing of satellite data to aid rescue and recovery efforts.

While people often think of space exploration as a way to promote national pride, the truth is that the future of space is international. These partnerships are expanding our knowledge of the universe, helping us search for life on other worlds, making critical observations of our own planet, and moving humans outward into space in a much more rapid time frame, and more comprehensively, than would be possible otherwise. In addition, innovations in technology and science are not restricted to one country. Diverse, innovative teams solve problems, and no one country or company can go it alone when it comes to the final frontier of space.

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.