Lessons Offer Solutions For Future International Space Collaborations

June 30, 1998

As potential partnerships for space programs emerge and budget cutbacks continue, opportunities for international collaborations look both promising and daunting. In the United States, there is a move toward increasing the number of smaller space science missions operating for shorter durations. Across the Atlantic, the European Union has adopted a broader role in space policy. On both sides, there is growing interest in opportunities for commercial space ventures. Budgetary constraints faced by space agencies make international missions more appealing for sharing costs, but at the same time have led to internal administrative changes that could hinder successful cooperative efforts.

Lessons learned from 30 years of U.S.-European cooperation in space research can help address these challenges and strengthen future programs, including large projects such as the International Space Station, says a new report from a joint committee of the National Research Council and the European Science Foundation. Cooperation in space research has led to more than 100 missions, which have varied in scope, complexity, and success. They include international scientific achievements such as the confirmation of evidence of black holes in the central regions of galaxies, which was provided by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997. The most detailed views ever obtained of the sun's atmosphere and corona from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory were achieved in a cooperative mission launched in 1995 by NASA and the European Space Agency.

In its report, U.S.-European Collaboration in Space Science, the committee examined several space missions, including 13 case studies, and identified factors that have helped or hindered international space ventures. The findings of this first comprehensive study of U.S.-European cooperation in space sciences also have implications for international scientific cooperation as a whole, the committee noted. Elements crucial for successful international cooperation in future space programs include the following:

Scientific goals and rationale. First and foremost, missions should not be undertaken solely because they are international in scope. To ensure that a mission is justified for scientific reasons, proposals should be peer reviewed by experts who can verify that the science is of excellent quality, meets high international standards, is cost-effective, and benefits all countries involved.

In joint missions, language and cultural differences between international partners are not the only barriers that must be overcome. One of the most important lessons learned from years of space research was that communication problems between the engineering and scientific communities and a lack of common objectives can disrupt missions. Close interaction among scientists and engineers -- for example, at the design phase -- is particularly important when compromises are needed between scientific goals and technical feasibility.

Among other aspects important for multilateral cooperation are having clearly defined responsibilities, a sound plan for accessing and distributing data, and obvious benefits from collaboration.

Independent periodic assessments. For each cooperative mission, the participating space agencies should appoint an independent group to regularly assess the project's scientific vitality, timeliness, and operations. The group also should examine whether the program should be extended or receive further funding.

Milestone agreements among partners. In the past, international partners signed a single agreement when embarking on a project. The interests of all parties would be best served, however, if additional agreements could be decided upon as the mission's scope is further defined and developed. The report outlines a hierarchy of agreements that can be used for this purpose, including letters to confirm proposed management, implementation, and scheduling of a program.

Support for international activities. In light of continuing budget cutbacks, the uncertainties of the U.S. funding process, and the importance of trustworthy international agreements for collaborative space programs, the joint committee recommended that NASA's funding include specific allocations for important, peer-reviewed, moderately sized international activities.

The study was funded by NASA and the European Science Foundation, an association of more than 60 major national funding agencies devoted to basic scientific research in more than 20 countries. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter.

Copies of U.S.-European Collaboration in Space Science are available from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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