Space: A Model for International Collaboration?

Space: A Model for International Collaboration?

While NASA is still the largest space program in the world, governments -- like China and India -- are developing their space programs at a rapid pace, not to mention private space initiatives such as SpaceX. Collaboration has been vital to this development, and will continue to be as new players emerge and more and more satellites crowd the orbit around Earth. During the European Conference at Harvard, cosponsored by The Fletcher School, The Forum recently sat down with Donato Giorgi of the Centre National d’Études Spatiales, the French space agency, to discuss the present and future of international relations in the final frontier.

Fletcher Forum: Why should the average foreign affairs reader of our journal be interested in space? What is the diplomacy and international relations aspect of it?

Donato Giorgi: Space is international by definition. You cannot imagine space activities as local interactions that imply no interactions with other countries. Once you launch a satellite, its orbit will take it over most of every single other country and probably travel over your head. The space activity of a country can become the business of some other country. For instance, you can use satellites to verify compliance to specific international treaties like, for example, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM).

FF: In a nutshell, what do you do?

DG: I manage the team in charge of the European and international relations of CNES. Part of my team deals with the European countries and their Agencies (like DLR in Germany, ASI in Italy and UKSA in the United Kingdom), the European Space Agency and the European Union. The other part deals with the rest of the world, other countries and their space agencies and the multilateral international entities, like the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. Basically, with my team, we manage all the relations between my agency and the rest of the space world outside France.

Also, space science is international by definition. Whatever team of space scientists you meet; you always find an international team. And these are just two examples.

FF: What do you see as the future of space?

DG: There is both competition and collaboration. Collaboration is essential. Whenever you want to build something that you cannot afford on your own, and/or you want to strengthen relations with your partners, you open yourself up for cooperation. The International Space Station, the largest international program in space so far, was built by the US with its international partners. Later on, it became a tool to show that the world changed and we could work with former USSR. This clearly shows how cooperation is one of the essentials of space, providing mutual benefits.

FF: Who are the space competitors now?

DG: No doubt that China, in a few years, will have nothing for anyone else to envy. India is no longer an “emerging” power. Europe traditionally is one of the major contributors to space activity, Russia and Japan and, of course the US. These are the established space powers. But more and more countries develop their space activities, eager to grasp the benefits that space can provide in terms of economic growth, strategic autonomy, pride and inspiration of the young generation.  They are partners and, at the same time, actual or potential competitors on the international arena, notably on the satellites or launch services market.

FF: Would you say the French are one of the more collaborative nations in terms of space?

DG: Well, that’s a big statement, but it’s true, we are very active. We cooperate with all the space powers and develop our relations with most of the countries eager to invest in space. We believe that it's very important to talk to others, because space international cooperation is necessary and provides a real added value to space programs on several aspects, like science, technology and diplomacy too. In fact, space, for its strategic nature, can be a supporting tool for the international action of governments.

It seems like the space policies of Europe mirror their international relations in other ways. Whereas NASA acts unilaterally, it doesn’t need as much collaboration as much as Europe or up and coming space powers. How are European and other space priorities unique from NASA's space priorities?

In Europe, we build our priorities based on a win-win approach. Every country has specific interests. ESA has 22 member states, the EU has 28 member states, when you have to define a priority, it takes time.

FF: So priorities shift more slowly than in the U.S.?

DG: In general, yes. And the good thing in Europe is that whenever you make a decision on a program, the program will be completed. For example, a though decision like the reorientation of the Constellation program in the U.S. would be very difficult to make in Europe. Decision making is based on consensus, and once you make consensus, you rarely go back.

FF: What is the state of U.S.-E.U. space collaboration? What are the challenges going forward?

DG: The relation between the US and the European countries, notably between France and the US, is the most traditional, oldest relationship. And these relations are still very strong. Of course, we‘re in a wait and see mode: whenever you change presidents in the US, the administrator of NASA changes, and the goals of NASA and space exploration can change accordingly.

FF: Trump has made it clear that he is pro-space. What is your response to that?

DG: I am very glad to hear that and I hope he will support space. We will continue to wait and see and keep on strengthening our cooperation with the US and continue to express friendship to the U.S. We are curious about the priorities of the new administration. However, looking at his platform from a few months ago, there was no detailed mention of space. NASA is our first international partner so it will be really important for the space activities of Europe and France.

FF: What about France’s own domestic political situation? If Le Pen wins the election, what does that mean for the French space program?

DG: Space is traditionally a priority for both left and right in France, given the specific perception of space as a tool for sovereignty. So, I’m quite optimistic about the future. But, of course, eventually, the decisions on the future of the French space activities stay with the government and we will implement them.

Image "NPP Delta II Launch" Courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls / CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Interviewee

Donato Giorgi is the Head of European and International Relations at Centre National d’Études Spatiales, the French space agency. Donato and his team’s activities span from the coordination of the French delegation to the European Space Agency to the relations with the European national space agencies, the European Commission, the UN and a wide range of space agencies in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

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