Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Raymond Francis' PSERF, January 28, 2011

Raymond Francis is a doctoral candidate at UWO and part of the CPSX family. While we both wear Iron Rings and he shares my Engineering/Science duality, he is definitely an Engineer at heart.
You can tell from the suit! 

To those of us who live in North America, we are understandably focused on NASA when it comes to the science and exploration of Space. It makes some sense - NASA was one of the first space agencies, it spends more money than any other (and five times more per capita than the next largest agency), and has a very slick marketing machine. Without a doubt, NASA generally sets the tone of the discourse and dominates when it comes to the more visible aspirational projects, such as planetary exploration and human space flight.

But there are other space agencies in the world and many countries that you might never have suspected of hosting a space agency do have one. The reason for this is simple: once you get beyond the aspirational side, exploitation of space makes direct economic sense for nearly every state actor. While the South Africans may not have a direct economic interest in putting a South African on Mars, they do have a deep and valuable interest in being able to predict the weather, create accurate topographic maps and do remote sensing that could allow resource exploitation and management. 

Why not just buy services from other countries for this? In some cases, the data may not be available due to geographic isolation or through lack of availability of another nation's satellite fleet. Furthermore, in some cases it is desirable to directly control of an orbiting asset rather than going through a potentially unfriendly nation as an intermediate. For instance, currently there are territorial disputes in the Arctic - does Canada really want to entrust its claims entirely to the products produced by Russian satellites? (No, hence RADARSAT) Do the Europeans want to trust their global positioning information entirely to another country's military? (No, hence GALILEO)

These are interesting questions and what Raymond did was to try and profile examples of three different classes of space agencies out of the hundreds that exist. He selected India, Russia and ESA (the European Space Agency) and discussed some of the practical and political reasons for these countries to be involved in Space. In particular, he showed great expertise in discussing ESA's mission, for which he had previously worked. What's special about ESA is that it is, essentially, a treaty organization (like NATO or the UN) which acts as a supranational body. I find this very interesting as lately the aspirational programs have been moving more and more towards greater collaboration with framework documents such as the GES and the formation of international working groups. Thus, ESA provides a glimpse of what human and planetary exploration might look like in the future.

It was a very good talk, but in thinking back there was one question that came to mind. While there are hundreds of space agencies, few nations have independent launch capabilities. These include the US, ESA (the world leader here since the establishment of launch operations as ITAR-Restricted by the US), Russia, Japan, China, India, Israel and Iran, amongst others. Therefore, you will notice that all of Raymond's choices are in a select club! 

Still there are good reasons for the selections he has made. India's space sector is still developing and no doubt has far to go. This makes it more interesting than many of the other developing space-faring nations, and provides more information to work with than might be available for some smaller nations. Raymond did mention a few examples of these, but perhaps their small programs did not justify more time. Most nations do seek out their own independent launch capabilities once their space sector grows sufficiently large, the exception being Canada. However, as neighbor to the US and an ESA-associate member we have very good access to launch services.

In addition to India's demonstration of a rapidly expanding space sector and ESA's example of what the future may hold in store, Russia also provided a very interesting case study. Here, the nation inherited launch capabilities that are second to none, and expertise in orbital station building. Today they are moving beyond this expertise and have been world leaders in the commercial exploitation of human space flight. However, Raymond reminded us of how important the political aspect is to all space agencies, hence why Russia is developing a launch site within its own borders, close to China, and in a region of the country where Moscow seeks to increase its influence.

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