Ten years ago I came out with a book, “Partners in Space: US-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War.” Perhaps for that reason, I was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Science and Space. Titled, “From Here to Mars,” the April 9, 2014 hearing featured experts on NASA exploration strategy, international cooperation in space, and commercial space efforts. Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) presided and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was also present at the hearing:
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today. It is an honor to be here.
I hope to address the geopolitical issues surrounding NASA’s exploration efforts. It is impossible to think about a space exploration strategy, however, without putting it into the context of today’s events in Russia and in Ukraine.
I support well-targeted sanctions on Russia, which will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking. But for reasons that I will outline, I believe that rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda.
International cooperation is vital if missions of increasing complexity are on the international agenda, such as Mars.
During the Cold War, scientific and technical communities played a vital role in serving as a bridge between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially during times of crisis. Many multilateral and even bilateral interactions survived the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Sputnik, the U-2 incident, the Cuban missile crisis – as well as the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and later Afghanistan.
But since the Cold War ended, US-Russian cooperation on nuclear security and in space has been at the heart of enhancing the United States’ national security.
The restrictive measures on space cooperation announced by NASA last week, however, could well threaten our achievements of the last twenty years.
Here are three reasons why we need to lift last week’s ban on all cooperation outside of the operations related to the ISS:
1. Our national security is greatly enhanced through cooperation
Since 1992, US-Russian cooperation in space has had a positive impact on the transformation of the Russian aerospace industry, which was, at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a bastion of Soviet hardliners. US interaction with the Russians on the Shuttle-Mir program and then the International Space Station brought unprecedented transparency and access to sensitive Russian facilities, along with a growing adoption, in Russia, of western best practices.
Since then, the lessons we have learned together have strengthened our overall performance in space beyond just the ISS, and have provided an indispensable window into the workings of the Russian military-industrial establishment.
2. If the goal of limiting cooperation is designed to send a strong message to President Putin, we need be careful. It could backfire.
The scientific community, as opposed to the aerospace industry, was traditionally the most progressive of all political sectors in the Soviet Union. But today, as a result of our cooperation, both of those sectors in Russia see us as their friends. Rather than sending a strong message to President Putin, suspension of cooperation will strengthen political hardliners who would prefer that Russia “go it alone” or work with countries more sympathetic to their views.
3. Safety depends on trust.
Much has been said about our mutual dependency in space. Safety of human life requires cooperation. At the moment, operations on the space station are proceeding as normal. Trust, however– that invaluable yet fragile commodity– can be easily eroded. NASA’s announcement last week that it will suspend “the majority of its ongoing engagements,” including high level visits, email exchanges and video conferencing could leave many of our friends in Russia high and dry and potentially change the more general atmosphere. Collective attitudes even in the Russian space sector could change, which might negatively impact working relationships on the ISS and potentially even safety.
As we know from history, it is always easier to terminate space cooperation than it is to get it started again. And we will not be able to meet our long-term goals in space without it. We should consider establishing the general principle going forward that space cooperation should be exempt from sanctions.
Space has unique capacities to serve the global community. It can be a force for preventive diplomacy, transparency and for sustaining and building bonds among those who are willing to put aside solely national pursuits. The lynchpin of this goal must be engagement. We must be wary of any space policy that provides only short-term symbolic satisfaction, just as we should be cautious of those in both countries who might want to exploit this crisis for short-term commercial or political gain. They could, ultimately, undermine our long-term strategy in space and possibly jeopardize the enormous human and financial investment we have already made.
For press coverage of yesterday’s hearing, please see an article from The Orlando Sentinel titled “Nelson and Rubio discuss NASA’s plan to restrict ties to Russia” and an op-ed published yesterday by Marina Koren in the National Journal.