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OUTER SPACE TECTONICS

Longitude #114, April 2021

 
 

OUTER SPACE TECTONICS

The fault has become visible. In a month that did not record any major events up in space, it might be worth analyzing in which directions plates are drifting on the Earth’s crust, and how national and super-national interests are redefining coalitions for space exploration.


One of the last acts of the Trump Administration’ leadership at NASA was the signing of the Artemis Accords, “a practical set of principles between NASA and several partner countries to guide cooperation in 21st century lunar exploration plans” led by America. Eight countries have joined so far – Canada, the UK, Italy, Luxembourg, Ukraine, the UAE, Japan and Australia – and Brazil has signed a Statement of Intent. At the same time, with the scope to extend the cooperation that has been taking place between the United States and Russia on the International Space Station (ISS), NASA invited Roscosmos to participate in the Lunar Gateway, that instead will use the same intergovernmental agreement as the ISS. However, the Head of Roscosmos defined the Gateway as “too US-centric”, and, on March 9, Chinese and Russian space agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperative construction of an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). The spokesperson of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) added that “we also welcome other countries around the world to join us”. This move made the two opposing line-ups clear, but the game of adding bishops and pawns is still wide open for both sides.


A month earlier, the Turkish President unveiled the National Space Program for the recently established Turkish Space Agency (TUA). It has ten strategic goals. The first is “to make the first contact with the Moon in our republic's centennial year [2023],” Erdogan said. Turkey also plans to invest more than $350 million in a spaceport in Somalia, as part of its $1 billion Moon mission. “To send Turkish citizens to space with a scientific mission” is the tenth goal. The strategy reads: “The issue of sending a Turkish citizen into space within international collaboration programs will be discussed”. On March 17, the Head of Roscosmos declared that Russia would be pleased to seize upon all opportunities to “join in the space-related initiatives of our important southern neighbor and partner Turkey”. On March 22, he also met with Indian cosmonaut candidates who successfully completed general space training in Russia as part of an agreement between India and Russia signed in 2019. The goal of ISRO's (Indian Space Research Organization) Gaganyaan program, announced by the Prime Minister Modi in 2018, is to demonstrate the capability to send humans to Low earth orbit (LEO) on board an Indian Launch vehicle and bring them back to earth safely, with the first crew flight scheduled in 2023. On February 2, the Government of India, Department of Space, released the draft “Humans in Space Policy” into the public domain for comments ahead of potential approval of the Union Cabinet of India. One of the eight guidelines was: “Define long-term roadmap for sustained human presence in low earth orbit and undertaking exploration missions beyond low earth orbit”.


Following the December 2019 launch by China of the first Ethiopian satellite, the Ethiopian Minister of Innovation and Technology said that “since China is going to have its space station, we also need to cooperate with China on the possibility to send our astronaut to the space station”. Ethiopia, like Egypt and Nigeria, could be on the side of the People’s Republic of China in the ILRS, if a small but symbolic role can be identified for them in the future. Furthermore, on March 18, the Saudi Space Commission signed an agreement with the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) for Saudi scientific experiments on board the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in 2022.


Switching back to America, in an interview on March 12, NASA’s acting chief of staff, currently the agency’s most senior Biden appointee, stressed that “honoring commitments made to international partners was a key principle of the transition team’s findings", whether on the ISS or in the Artemis Accords. And on March 19, President Biden announced his intent to nominate former US Senator Bill Nelson to serve as NASA Administrator. This pick shall ensure that NASA gets the President attention, since Nelson and Biden have worked together in the Senate and reportedly have a close relationship. Moreover, despite opposite expectations, press reported on March 29 that “the National Space Council will be renewed to assist the President in generating national space policies, strategies, and synchronizing America’s space activities”.


The European Space Agency (ESA), “an international organization with 22 Member States that, by coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, can undertake programs and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country”, is participating in the Gateway through two elements, mostly thanks to the financial contribution and the industrial capabilities brought by Italy, which, surprisingly, does not appear in the NASA webpage regarding Artemis Partners, while France and Germany do. Notwithstanding the September 2020 declarations that the Italian Space Agency (ASI), in a new bilateral with NASA in Artemis, will provide a Lunar Shelter, the cover of the program for the November 18 webinar organized by ASI showed instead one of the three American commercial landers still in competition for selection by NASA. Regardless whether a French company supplies wirings and passenger seats for the 787 Dreamliner aircraft, would you imagine France portraying a national program through the rendering of a Boeing-owned system?

 
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