At the Heads of Space Agency online plenary at the International Astronautical Congress IAC 2020, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s Administrator, started his presentation with the quote that “Competition is a driver, collaboration is an enabler.” He explained that by cooperating nations would be able to help each other achieve their space aims. He reported the international popularity of the Artemis plan to put humans back onto the Moon and how many nations wanted to take part in it (writer’s comment: other nations are champing at the bit to get their astronauts on the Moon).  When asked about whether Covid-19 pandemic had affected NASA seriously, Bridenstine said that it had delayed some missions  but that personnel had learned to work around the restrictions.

This was reiterated by ESA Director General Jan Woerner who said that similarly that there had been some launch delays and cost increases, but that teleworking had worked well, and that the pandemic had actually accelerated ESA’s plans for a “digital transformation”.  As he noted that this years IAC was his final one in his role as ESA Head, Woerner listed out recent successes and future projects e.g. LISA, Copernicus  Bepi-Colombo, Galileo, Ariane 6, Vega C  and the Space rider mini-shuttle.

NASA’s Bridenstine was keen to mention how NASA technology was now being used in the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus including sterilising “foggers” normally used to sterilise space probes, were now being used to sterilise ambulances.

On that subject, China’s Kejian Zhang, Administator of China National Space Administration (CNSA), reported that spectrometers designed for space research were  being used for virus detection.  Zhang explained that China was fully in favour of space cooperation, saying via an interpreter: “We can actually unite to achieve greater success.” On space cooperation, Zhang later how China had worked very successfully with Brazil on their joint longstanding CBERS (China Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) programme.

Zhang stated that his country had made 37 launches in 2019 with 25 flown so far this year including the successful launch of the future mainstay of China’s national launches, the Long March 5B. China looks forward to lunar missions and its Chang’e lunar probe design team, Wu Wieren, Yu Dengyun and Sun Zezhou, were awarded the prestigious IAC’s World Space Award medal.

Heads of Agencies Plenary participants at IAC 2020 Online. Courtesy: IAC

Dmitry Rogozin, Head of the Russia’s space agency/space conglomerate, is often portrayed as the “bad guy” of space – mainly due to his too close connection to Russia’s international law-breaking President Vladimir Putin.  Apart from being subject to international sanctions himself due to this close connection, Rogozin, has recently come under internal fire from ex-cosmonauts for his handling of the Russian space programme. Despite this, and the worsening of US-Russian relations generally, Rogozin does maintain a friendship with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and made a point of noting Russia’s good relationship with his US opposite number.

Rogozin said that Russia would like to keep the ISS working to 2035. He explained that good research was being done on the long term effect of long range space missions was being done on the station and that Roscosmos plans to launch its NAUKA multipurpose module to the ISS next year. It will be used for various biotech and optical research.

However, in respect to what follows the ISS, Rogozin was critical of US plan for the Lunar Gateway mini-space station project saying it was “too US centric” effectively meaning that USA had much sway over the project.  Nevertheless, even if Russia does not formally take part in the Gateway programme – given recent geopolitical tensions between Russia and USA (and other Western nations) this is looking less likely – Rogozin hopes that a common/universal docking module will be designed so that Russia’s new cosmonaut carrying Orel spacecraft can at least dock with it – if only as a potential rescue measure.  In response to a question, Rogozin said he saw the Moon as BOTH a stepping stone to long range exploration AND as part of a long term space infrastructure. As a sign of a change of Russia’s space partners, Rogozin did note that Russia was reaching out to China’s space effort. Rogozin declared that Roscosmos will soon be testing lunar landing technology on the Moon.

Lisa Campbell, the brand new President of the Canadian Space Agency declared in a short speech how Canada wanted to grow its space sector given its economic potential. Campbell also said that she hoped to learn from other countries space industries.  When asked about climate change in a subsequent press conference, she read out an obviously pre-prepared answer to a question on how Canada’s space effort might help research.  While not very stylish, her rambling reply did note that free data access was one thing that her agency was striving for so that scientists around the world could benefit.  Pointedly, in this new era of geopolitical tension, Campbell noted that Canada was a “reliable partner” for space cooperation.

The Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr K. Sivan was especially strong on its attitude to space cooperation – both for the benefit of itself – but also for the benefit of other less advanced space nations. For example, Dr Sivan said that part of the reason why India’s human space programme was advancing so rapidly was that it was using the help of other spacefaring nations. He noted Russian help with the testing of ISRO’s crew module, its life support systems and with its crew training.  Meanwhile, on the scientific front, ISRO is now cooperating with both NASA and the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on scientific and exploration research, and with JAXA on a joint lunar polar mission. ISRO even works with Israel on electric propulsion systems. Sivan explained that ISRO was not just a taker of space help, it was also giving back by helping developing nations with their nanosat projects.

The President of Japan’s JAXA space agency, Hiroshiu Yamakawa, noted the keenness of his nation to take part in the Global Exploration Plan and especially NASA’s Artemis project to return humans to the Moon.  He explained that there would be Japanese technology on the Moon orbiting Lunar Gateway mini-space station.

Apart from the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX) unmanned mission that ISRO is working on with JAXA, Yamakawa said that Japan was also working on the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission which involves developing a smart lunar lander for pinpoint landings on the lunar surface. Japan is also developing a pressurised lunar rover for human use.  In addition JAXA is planning a small sample return mission called Martian Moons Exploration (MMX). Yamakawa was later asked about progress on plans for hydrogen production on the Moon and whether this would aid “sustainability”. Yamakawa said that he did foresee such technology being used but that it would “take some time” to develop and implement.

Later in the post match press conference some other subjects came up.

On whether their should be international regulations on the promulgation of space debris, ESA Head Jan Woerner  implied that most good behaviour would be voluntary. “I dont need a regulation to stop me killing people, ” he said.  Behaviour of space states came up again when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was asked about the Artemis Accords that he had brought in as a template for international behaviour. Bridenstine explained that the Artemis Accords were not really new. “The Artemis Accords reinforce the Outer Space Treaty” he said.

Bridenstine subsequently revealed that eight nations including Australia, Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom and the United States of America itself have now signed up to the accords. It is implicit that if a nation hoped to put its astronauts onto the Moon via NASA’s Artemis programme it would have to sign up to the accords.