At the plenary session held at the International Astronautical Congress involving all the main heads of the world’s space agencies, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden hailed international cooperation as the way forward, even though he had to sheepishly admit that NASA had, for a time, put the Exomars missipn at risk when it withdrew its financial support for a launch.  That mission was later saved by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.  

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NASA’S Administrator Charles Bolden makes his point at IAC Naples. Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Bolden noted that most space agencies were facing financial difficulities in the face of govermental cutbacks.  “We are facing a fiscal crisis,” he said. Neverthless, Bolden noted that NASA would continue to be at the forefront of exploration but that commercial space activity would fill in the void behind it as he advanced. Bolden suggested that this trend woudl continue in the future noting that there would be a time when “governments and agencies take over interstellar travel,  while industry and companies take over interplanetary travel.”

The fate of the Internatonal Space Station (ISS) loomed large at the conference wilth Enrico Saggesse of the Italian Space Agency suggesing that low Earth orbit was “astronaut friendly” and that now the ISS is built, it should be used.  “But how long should we use it?”  he asked.

There was a general acceptance that operations should continue beyound 2020, though JAXA’s President, Keiji Tachikawa,  noted that the Moon and Mars should be the next destinations. Servey Saviliev, Deputy Head of the Russian Space Agency indicated that a Russian-built mulitfunctional module would be attached to the International Space Station in the 2013-14 time period.

With respect what each nation should be doing for spaceflight, some suggested that  nations did not have the finance to do everything but that they could specialise.  As he promoted this model Canada’s Space Agency head, Steve Maclean noted his nation’s prowess in robotics, optics and radar technologies.  Maclean had earlier described how Canada was working on new medical diagnostic tools that can be used in orbit – though we warned that it was not quite up to the fictional tricorder of Star Trek fame.

Enrico Sargesse took up on the concept of countries specialising on key technologies, reporting that Italy had also developed centres of excellence.  That said, Sargesse also noted that much of Italy’s space industry was actually part of international firms and that specialisations were spread across several nations.

When asked whether Europe would ever have a manned capability of its own, Head of the European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain explained that  Europe would probably stay out of developing its own manned space system noting that soon there could soon be too many manned capable systems able to reach orbit.   “Do we need four or five (manned) systems?  Certainly not!”  He said.   Nevertheless, Dordain did think that Europe could contribute key technology for manned systems.   Specifically, Europe hs offered its ATV as the basis of a service module for NASA’s Orion manned spacecraft.

With respect to future manned cooperation in space, China’s representative on the plenary Yafeng Hu (Hu Yafeng) of the China National Space Administration. hinted that one day China’s space stations would welcome other astronauts.

With respect to China’s closest space competitor in Asia, P.S. Veeraghavan, Vice Chairman of the ISRO council, noted that India had not yet fully commited to building a manned spacecraft but was working on several of its technologies to do so.  These included life support and manned escape systems.

As the plenary sessoin ended, all the agency heads hoped that the world’s public would realise just how dependent on space they were becoming.  Charles Bolden even challenged America to see if it could operate without direct or spin-off space technology.