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The Case for Enabling a Golden Era of Exploration Through International Space Cooperation
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By Alex Davis

“[I]nternational cooperation is enabling a golden era of robotic space exploration even in the face of budget cuts and increasing costs[1].” In an article commenting on the necessity of international collaboration on future space ventures, Lou Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society, argues that cooperation will enable far greater progress in exploration than “space agency folks” could complete in independent national space programs. Presumably, the golden era of robotic space exploration that Friedman mentions will extend with ease to human space exploration. Friedman asks, “How much of a leap is it to combine robotic Mars landers with International Space Station missions to produce a program that takes humans into the solar system?” He goes on to imply that a lack of cooperation is inhibiting the expansion of space exploration programs rather than a lack of sufficient technology or resources. The benefits of international cooperation in civil space programs are enormous and, in addition to advancing the state of global space exploration, include increased cost effectiveness, greater diplomatic prestige, and enhanced political sustainability for those leading the cooperative efforts[2]. However, challenges arising from cooperation, particularly with regard to international security, are not to be discounted. The geopolitical landscape is distinctly anarchic, and the medium of space is no exception. A means by which states may both derive positive utility and increase their own security in the anarchic international order is through productive cooperation with each other. States choose to collaborate on civil space programs, therefore, because it is mutually beneficial. It is undeniable that the progress of global space exploration to this date has been furthered through international cooperation[3], beginning with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1972. Because meaningful international space cooperation was achieved during the height of the Cold War without generating significant security issues and because this valuable cooperation has continued to this day, the benefits of cooperation clearly justify the complexity and difficulty of its implementation.

One of the largest obstacles to progress in space exploration is the immense cost of developing and sustaining a successful space agency. With the exception of the United States and possibly China, there is no country that is capable of financing its space exploration goals by itself[4]. The implication of this reality is that cooperation is not preferable but absolutely essential for any other states with these goals. Although the International Space Station is the awe-inspiring and considerably successful apotheosis of multilateral space cooperation to this date, it is also the single most expensive and politically complex piece of publicly funded infrastructure ever built[5],[6], and it owes its existence to the peaceful partnerships constructed and maintained in the wake of the space race. There is an incentive for states to cooperate while maintaining a space program, therefore, because they increase their utility by spreading a fraction of the colossal total cost to the space agencies of other states. At the 28th National Space Symposium in 2012, Canadian Space Agency Vice President Chummer Farina reinforced this point in a speech made to representatives from seven different space agencies, stating, “the returns to the investments made by our countries in international space projects generate far greater returns than can be achieved through investments made solely in domestic projects[7].” The benefits of collaborative investments in space projects also extend to the numerous accidents and failures that every space agency will inevitably face, regardless of the extent of their technological or economic development. By sharing the cost of a venture, states also share the risk of its failure[8]. If a state is faced with bearing the full financial responsibility of any potential mishap, there is less of an incentive for them to jeopardize the overhead costs by attempting the project singlehandedly. By cooperating with other states and sharing the risk, states may pursue more ventures with a lower financial burden on each individual state per venture. Cooperation as a means of saving money also creates a spillover effect that generates other positive externalities for participating states, such as the opportunity for technology transfer through scientific collaboration[9].

“The ISS program, along with most international civil space endeavors, carries with it an element of diplomatic cachet and control[10].” Friedman argues that international cooperation on civil space ventures give states positive influence over each other by creating interdependency. This interdependency developed through cooperation leads to the creation of mutually beneficial diplomatic utility. As more countries participate in collaborative projects, total diplomatic utility of the projects increases, creating a Kessler syndrome-esque domino effect that incentivizes an increasing number of states in the system to contribute to international space ventures for the benefit of the entire group. One of the greatest successes of international space cooperation today is between NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the European Space Agency, which is in itself a collective of 21 European member states. Large scale missions due to take place in the 2020s are already being planned between these agencies, all benefiting from the ability to share information and technology. When interdependency exists, however, dominant space agencies, NASA in particular, will attempt to eliminate asymmetrical relationships, in what Eligar Sadeh calls the “interdependent-sovereign dynamic[11].” NASA ensures that collaboration does not exist without accountability by clearly defining authoritative roles, assigning financial responsibility based on individual contribution, and protecting sensitive technology from reverse engineering or other compromising practices. In doing this, dominant agencies such as NASA create mutually beneficial relationships while upholding the space status quo, extending hegemonic roles to the medium of space while helping to reinforce them on earth’s anarchic geopolitical landscape. Critics of these cooperative efforts have indicated that bureaucratic complexity and funding issues between the agencies necessitates that these missions be planned up to 15 years in advance, and although this appears to be somewhat true, the new capabilities built up as a product of collaboration justify the process[12]. By cooperating in the first place, states act to minimize any funding issues generated, and the remaining argument that extensive planning should derail international space projects as incredibly intricate and scientifically significant as sending an orbiter to Europa and Ganymede doesn’t hold[13].

The final argument made by Broniatowski, Faith, and Sabathier is that international space cooperation tends to increase political sustainability. The risk to diplomatic capital, both domestically and abroad, of cancelling or delaying a collaborative space venture is usually so great due to the extensive planning that precedes it that political leaders are not willing to break international agreements, thus sustaining the program. Although these decisions are made usually in the self-interest of politicians, the programs are nonetheless kept alive by their own weight. It is for this reason that the integration of Russia into the International Space Station is thought to have saved the program from cancellation, it having been kept alive by only one vote in the United States Congress a year earlier[14]. Should a nation choose to unilaterally withdraw from a collaborative project regardless of its level of involvement, the loss of utility imposed, both monetarily and in terms of international credibility, will likely be enormous. Broniatowski, Faith, and Sabathier add that withdrawal from an international project will harm a state’s chances of future cooperation on similar projects due to the damaged credibility. It is for this reason that the authors argue that the International Space Station should not be unilaterally terminated, because it would reflect on the United States as a withdrawal and sabotage its chances as the world’s space leader for collaboration on subsequent projects. Even though the cost of the project—an estimated one hundred and fifty billion dollars—may create losses in the short run, the total cost of eliminating it completely would be far greater. In other words, the benefits of cooperating on this program outweigh the complexity of its implementation.

In his article detailing the benefits of standardization on the International Space Station, Frank Slazer concludes, “Learning to live and work together in space will invariably improve our ability to live and work together on Earth,” arguing that now is the time for more extensive global peaceful cooperation[15]. The benefits of cooperation are immense, including cost effectiveness, enhanced diplomatic capital, and the protection of political sustainability. There are other external benefits such as technology sharing that further add to the reasons that states should collaborate on civil space projects. The loudest critics of international space collaboration—applying the outdated complaints of Mearsheimer to the new medium—argue that this behavior amplifies the security risks created by space entrance, however the fact that peaceful space cooperation emerged during and survived the greatest security conflict in modern history, the Cold War, suggests that states have and will continue to benefit from this cooperation despite the state of earth’s geopolitical landscape. Although the complexity and difficulty of implementing successful space cooperation is undeniable, if humankind is to “[slip] the surly bonds of earth[16],” now is the time to form global partnerships that will carry on into a new era of exploration and discovery.


IA Forum Student Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Alex Davis attends George Washington University.

[1] Friedman, Lou, “The case for international cooperation in space exploration,” The Space Review, February 21st, 2011, accessed February 17th, 2015, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1782/1.

[2] Broniatowski, D.A., G. Ryan Faith, and Vincent G. Sabathier, “The Case for Managed International Cooperation in Space Exploration,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed February 17th, 2015, http://web.mit.edu/adamross/www/BRONIATOWSKI_ISU07.pdf.

[3] Slazer, Frank, “Cooperation in space – The International Space Station benefits from ISO standards,” The International Organization for Standardization, October 5th, 2011, accessed February 17th, 2015, http://www.iso.org/iso/home/news_index/news_archive/news.htm?refid=Ref1555.

[4] Broniatowski, Faith, and Sabathier, 2006.

[5] Sheldon, John, “Space Cooperation,” IAFF 3179: Space in International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, February 9th, 2015.

[6] Sadeh, Eligar, “Cooperation in Orbit: The Evolution of the International Space Station Program,” World Politics Review, March 19th, 2013, accessed February 17th, 2015, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/12803/cooperation-in-orbit-the-evolution-of-the-international-space-station-program.

[7] Chow, Denise, “Space Agency Leaders Say Global Cooperation Vital for Future Exploration,” Space.com, May 24th, 2012, accessed February 17th, 2015, http://www.space.com/15848-space-agencies-international-cooperation.html.

[8] Sheldon, 2015.

[9] Sheldon, 2015.

[10] Friedman, 2011.

[11] Sadeh, 2013.

[12] Friedman, 2011.

[13] “Proposed Mission to Jupiter System Achieves Milestone,” NASA.gov, February 4th, 2011, accessed February 19th, 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/europa20110204.html.

[14] Broniatowski, Faith, and Sabathier, 2006.

[15] Slazer, 2011.

[16] Magee, Jr., John Gillespie, “High Flight,” 1941.

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