While the heads of several space agencies delivered the usual platitudes about international cooperation at the IAC 2014, the “missing elephants in the room”, were China and Russia. So was this an indication that international space cooperation would, in future, be purely a Western affair? Possibly – but actually it was because the Canadian government had denied visas to many of Russia’s and China’s top space officials, including their space agency heads. The International Astronautical Federation (IAF) was forced to apologise for this, emphasising that the absence of Chinese and Russian delegations was out of their control.
While no official reason was given, Seradata understands that Russian officials had been denied visa entry by Canada as a protest against continued occupation of parts of Ukraine by Russia, while some of China’s representatives were apparently denied visas due to recent allegations of spying.
Canada’s government came under intense criticism at the Congress because the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) is viewed as an apolitical “World Event”, similar to the Olympics. Even during the worst years of the Cold War, Western and Warsaw Pact nations still saw fit to use it as a meeting point to discuss (and argue about) space cooperation and research.
Each of the main participants described their main achievements during the year and their immediate plans. Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency, noted that the final ATV (ATV 5) had flown its last mission. He said that ESA had had its successes with the Gaia galaxy-mapping mission and with the Vega rocket’s early launches. Dordain put on a brave face to recount that a recent Galileo satellite launch had gone wrong. He was, however, more optimistic about ESA’s IXV re-entry research vehicle flight, soon to be launched on a Vega. He also reminded the audience that ESA was still growing in membership with Hungary and Estonia set to join, bringing the total to 22 by the end of the year.
Having already received an award at the opening ceremony, Dr. Kris Radharishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), received further plaudits on behalf of his agency for the Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM). When asked about its cost-effectiveness and speed of execution, Dr. Radharishnan, revealed the ingenuity of ISRO in using what it had with the PSLV launch vehicle to achieve a high enough orbit to allow a transfer orbit insertion. He further explained that ISRO had used both modularity and adaptability to achieve success in the mission. To reach its launch date, Radharishnan explained: “Our people worked almost on a 24/7 days’ basis. We did not compromise on any tests.” He said that ISRO had awarded themselves, somewhat harshly, a mark of 85% for the achievement.
ISRO was now working to perfect enhanced versions of its GLSV rocket, he added, which will have a payload of 4,000kg to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). He looked forward to the Astrosat X-ray astronomy satellite and Chandrayaan 2 lunar orbiter and rover programme. In its civil programmes, ISRO was working on Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology and planned to build a high throughput communications satellite transmitting up to 100 Gigabits per second.
Paying tribute to India’s MoM mission, the Administrator of NASA, Major Gen Charles Bolden, said that NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft had also achieved orbit around the planet Mars and explained that NASA and ISRO were now in full scientific cooperation on both missions. Bolden highlighted NASA’s successful Earth environment research launches, including the OCO 2 spacecraft and the launch to the International Space Station of the Rapidscat payload via a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft. He reminded the audience that NASA was not just about space, explaining that aeronautics and air traffic management had been recent areas of concentration for the agency.
As he looked forward, Bolden noted that the first launch of the Orion capsule on a Delta IV Heavy was approaching. On future missions, ESA would be providing Orion’s service module.
The President of Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura, looked forward to his nation’s new launch vehicle, currently dubbed HX. It is hoped that the launch cost of this rocket will be half of the current cost of an H-2A. Okumura reported that the joint JAXA/NASA GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) Mission was working well and would provide data to the international scientific community. Okumura also noted that Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata had returned safely from the ISS during the year. Mr Okumura also looked forward both to the launch, later this year, of the Huyabusa 2 asteroid sampling mission and to 2020, when Tokyo will again be hosting the Olympic games. It last hosted them in the pre-communications satellite era in 1964.
Heads stress need to inspire and engage students
The agency heads were at pains to explain how space was being used in their countries to inspire and encourage students to study science and engineering. Javier Mendieta Jiménez Francisco, Director General of the Mexican Space Agency, described his country’s aspiration to move from aircraft to spacecraft and stressed the importance of social media for encouraging the young’s interest in space.
Walter Natyncyk, President of Canada’s Space Agency, explained that Canada was not only a specialist in space robotics but also had expertise in communications and optical systems. Canadian youth studying space and related subjects were connecting with companies via both formal and informal links enabled by his agency. Chris Hadfield, the astronaut who became famous for his in-orbit rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, was cited as an example of how to reach out to the young via online media.
To further encourage interest in space, Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General, said: “I think that the biggest challenge is not to put the future too far away.” He explained that there had been only an eight-year gap between Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit and Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 landing. Youngsters were more interested in space missions in the five-year timeframe than those 15 years away, he added.
To further explain space research’s relevance to people on Earth, Bolden, of NASA, pointed out how space research had helped farming and was even being used to identify the environmental conditions that promoted the spread of disease, including the Ebola virus. While the opening ceremony was noted for its lack of women speakers, at least Victoria Perez, of the Space Generation Advisory Council, put some of the questions to the panel.
Space agencies are yet to decide on ISS extension but all are keen on cooperation
All of the space agency leaders were keen to point out that the International Space Station (ISS) is now producing good science. While the long-term future of the ISS is officially limited to six remaining years, an extension to 2024 has been proposed – although this plan has been complicated by the geopolitical tensions resulting from Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine.
Okumura, of JAXA, warned that Japan had not yet committed to funding its share of the ISS beyond 2020. Similarly Dordain noted that ESA’s member states had yet to decide on this extension.
Global space cooperation is still regarded as essential for both the cost-sharing and technical advantages it gives. However, Dordain reminded the audience that international cooperation was often “hard to achieve” given his own experience with ESA’s 20 member states. However, he added that that once achieved it was usually very successful. While competition would continue to exist, it was more likely to be between scientists and innovators than nation states.
As ESA’s members try to thrash out a deal on developing Ariane 6, the new launch vehicle programme, Dordain explained that one motive for the project was the limited commonality between ESA’S current stable of Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets, so it would be striving to achieve a single family of launchers by the end of the decade.
On the subject of competition between innovators, when asked why NASA decided to fund Boeing and Space X’s capsule design in the CCtCap commercial crew transport award, Bolden refused to comment on the grounds that the losing Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle team was officially appealing the decision. (The reason was subsequently revealed to be NASA’s concern over the length of time required to bring Dream Chaser to full flight status).