U.S.-European Space Cooperation: Go Boldly, and Go Together
WASHINGTON -- European Union governments met last week in Prague and agreed to support a major investment in space exploration in cooperation with other nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, China, and India. At the same time, the Obama administration is pondering the recommendations of an expert panel on the way forward for U.S. manned space exploration. The panel delivered its report to the White House the day before the EU meeting in Prague and offered the administration a range of possible courses. In the Cold War's early days of space exploration, the Soviet-American competition was labeled the "space race." Races generally result in prizes for the winner, and the prize in this case was the historic prestige of being the first nation to send its explorers beyond the home planet.
Nations still pursue space exploration for national prestige. In explaining the EU's decision to increase investment in space exploration, European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen said, "Exploration is to open the minds of European citizens without having to answer the question: How useful will it be?" But, he added, "Space exploration has never been driven by human curiosity alone. It is a symbol of global power and prestige. Other countries are rising to the challenge. Europe should not remain sidelined in this process." Centuries ago, European explorers were driven by curiosity as well as the prospect of money and fame.
Recalling the 18th-century British effort to find a method for ships' captains to determine accurately their longitude, NASA has used prizes recently to encourage technology innovations such as the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge. The competitors' goal was to build a robot that can "dig up and deposit at least 150 kilograms of material from a simulated lunar surface and deposit it in a collection bin." The $500,000 prize was won by a team led by a college student. The current reviews of space policy in Europe and America offer an opportunity to advance human exploration as well as unmanned science missions. But to do so, President Obama and his European colleagues must chart a new route.
Europe and the United States should together view space exploration not as the exclusive domain of scientists and government agencies, but of our entire societies. To engage the best of our societies in space exploration, we should return to that tested method of encouraging exploration, the prize. Most of NASA's human exploration budget, and as much as Europe can contribute, should be pulled from government-run programs and put into a fund for major space exploration prizes. Money would be available within a few years for the United States and Europe to offer jointly prizes of, for example, 20 billion euros/$30 billion for a successful manned lunar mission and 50 billion euros/$75 billion for a successful Mars mission. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) would work on the common infrastructure that all prize-contenders would need, such as launch facilities and communications.
But the energy, creativity, and risk-taking mindset that must all come together to advance exploration would come from American and European societies in partnership. Meanwhile, ESA and NASA would focus on the kind of high-risk, high-reward science that has succeeded in recent years, such as the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and the Mars landers. Five years ago this month, a team led by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took aim at the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million. The prize called for launching a reusable manned vehicle on a sub-orbital spaceflight twice within two weeks. During the Rutan team's first flight, the vehicle reached space but unexpectedly tumbled at the top of its trajectory. The team's engineers analyzed the data carefully.
Then, rather than announcing a multi-year delay for expensive modifications, they told the public that they believed they understood the problem, that the risk was acceptable, and that they would launch again as planned. On the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik launch that began the space race, they took home their prize. Their successors can lead a bright future of space exploration.
Joseph R. Wood is a senior resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.