LATE last month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the State Department began another round of negotiations over the international space station with representatives from 11 European nations. But they seem to be approaching these talks with shortsighted positions and limited flexibility. It is disturbing that the participants have not progressed beyond positions held more than a year ago. The talks are deadlocked and may require the intervention of political leaders to keep the Europeans from withdrawing from the program. When President Reagan announced the space station program in 1984, he invited the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Canadians to participate. The goal of the program is fairly straightforward: Build and operate a permanently manned space facility that uses international crews and components built by all the partners. The upshot from all this? Essentially, the program would provide the infrastructure for the commercial and scientific exploitation of space and would set the precedent for decades of space development.
Crucial issues remain to be resolved, including the limits on technology transfer, the legal regime, and the management and operational control structure.
Assistant Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, whose office is responsible for the State Department's role in the negotiations, said Nov. 20 that the United States is prepared to build the space station without foreign help unless NASA can maintain full management authority. This does not augur well for promoting consensus with the Europeans and could lead to the breakdown of negotiations. The result would be a much less capable space station: to the tune of about $2 billion, which the Europeans plan to contribute.
Clearly, the management structure will be difficult to negotiate. Still, the barriers should not be as insurmountable as NASA appears to believe. NASA hopes to maintain America's role as the leader in space technologies and commercial space activities. The program will also serve NASA's institutional objectives of maintaining high prestige and high funding levels.
The Europeans, who intend eventually to deploy an independent space station, hope to maximize their experience not only in technology but also in management of the day-to-day operations of manned space activity. Because of their experience with Spacelab and the Ariane launch program, they come to the table with the most negotiating power of the foreign participants. The Canadians wish to build on their experience with the shuttle's remote manipulator arm to provide an integrated satellite servicing facility. Finally, the Japanese want to acquire as much experience and information as possible from cooperation in order to build an indigenous technology base and take a leading position in the space industry.
Because the US is the dominant contributor in both technical and capital terms, NASA is seeking to maximize its control over the management structure. But the Europeans, at least, will not agree to give NASA full operational authority. Instead of negotiating away any possibility for large-scale international cooperation, NASA should be able to realize a large degree of control while responding to European concerns. An attractive alternative would be an arrangement, like the interim Intelsat agreements, where NASA serves as the operational manager under an international board of directors or governing council. This council would set broad policy and program direction. Voting should be on a proportional basis, with a no-veto clause to satisfy foreign concerns over unilateral US action.
The advantages of this operational-manager system are management simplicity and operating efficiency. A new international operating organization along the lines of the European Space Agency would not have the well-established lines of communication nor the proven management system. Neither would NASA maintain the significant control over the program which its contribution implies. Another alternative, separate management of each element by the contributing member, would still require coordinated provisions for shared resources and crisis management. Thus, a truly independent management approach is impossible.
NASA will not have the operational flexibility that Comsat had as a quasi-independent agency under the Intelsat arrangement. As a well-established functioning agency, however, NASA will be better able than a newly formed public or private organization to respond quickly to change. As the program gains operational experience, the problems and positive aspects of the management structure will become apparent, and further negotiations can account for them. In time, the program could make a transition to an independent international systems manager, but only with the confidence developed by all sides through positive operational experience.
This kind of dynamic approach eliminates the pressure for immediate solutions, and more effective policies can evolve over time.
The long-term nature of the project requires a flexible, forward-looking organization if that organization is to realize mankind's hopes for opening new scientific and commercial frontiers far beyond the space station program.
Todd A. Watkins is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University.