How should we collaborate on space projects?

19 May 2015

Question

What are the problems we face with international co-operation in space projects?

Answer

We put this question to Space Boffin Richard Hollingham...

Richard - Well, it all comes down to money essentially. The classic experiment really with international cooperation in space is the International Space Station. That costs an estimated - it's really difficult to get a number - but 100 billion US dollars. It is the most expensive machine we have ever built as humans. The only way you can do something like that, although it has evolved, is in cooperation. What's extraordinary despite the geopolitical problems on Earth between the United States and Russia for instance, Europe and Russia for instance, in space everyone is cooperating. There was even when I was at the last launch I went to, I do with the launch commentaries for rockets particularly from Russia. Kat - So cool.

Richard - It is really cool. This is in Russia mission control. There was this rather nauseating group hug between the heads of the Russian and the American, and the European space agencies. This is a true cooperation in space. So, it's extraordinary. It does all really come down to the money. I mean, even within Europe say, for example, the Rosetta, this amazing spacecraft that's landed the PHILAE lander on a comet. It is an extraordinary thing to do. That costs 1.4 billion euros. I mean, that's actually not very much money for doing something remarkable. But that's all European nations in cooperation. Now, we know European nations are not great at cooperating with each other all the time. We know scientists are not always great at cooperating with each other all the time. But to do something like this, the only way to do it is to pool money in from various places. So, there's an awful lot of cooperation. There's cooperation between Europe and Russia, with the new Exo-Mars project. So, the only way Europe could get enough money, to get a rover on Mars was to go in with the Russians who'll provide the launchers for this project. There's a lot of cooperation between Europe and China. What there isn't is cooperation between the United States and China. So, what we could have in a few years' time or a few decades time is a European astronaut - for example, the British astronaut Tim Peake on a Chinese space station or even a Chinese moon base but no American involvement. So, that's the only sticking point really. But yeah, to do it, you have to cooperate.

Kat - That sounds like the plot of a James Bond film right there.

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