On Oct. 20, an 800-ton Ariane 5 rocket launched from the coast of South America. Onboard, it carried a $2 billion spacecraft named BepiColombo, built to endure hard radiation, the vacuum of space and the extreme heat and cold experienced along its seven-year journey to the planet Mercury. What makes BepiColombo unique, however, is not the destination, but rather the twin orbiters it carries, each designed and constructed by a separate nation. A joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), BepiColombo is an example of what the future of scientific space exploration could be: a coordinated, integrated international effort to address the mysteries of our solar system and its neighbors.
Although NASA has long expressed a commitment to international collaboration, the U.S. has operated solo on almost every mission except the International Space Station. NASA’s only major international cooperation comes through contributing technology to science missions spearheaded by other space agencies. If the success of ISS and BepiColombo prove that large-scale international collaboration is possible, why does cooperation remain so limited?
The answer lies in three challenges central to international cooperation. The first issue is the balance of power in joint missions: No country wants to relinquish oversight of flight critical systems. If one country assumes all critical responsibilities, the others may be reduced to the role of supplier and their projects to add-ons. Past joint missions serve as a guide: The launch vehicle can remain the responsibility of a single agency, but, as in the case of BepiColombo, the scientific payload can be provided by multiple nations. Multiple countries could also develop redundant systems. Although this requires more overall spending, the entire project is not delayed if one nation runs into challenges during development.
Secondly, coordination and communication among nations is challenging — language and cultural barriers become an issue, and engineers from each nation have no accountability over their international partners. However, large-scale coordination across organizations has already become the norm. NASA has numerous partners in the U.S. private sector who provide critical components, requiring the same communication of design specifications, constraints and timelines as an international project — if the language barrier can be overcome, working with other countries is little more difficult than working with Boeing or SpaceX.
What may be the biggest challenge, however, is navigating the politics intertwined with the engineering and science. Working on a project team, even if it’s only for a class, alters your relationship with team members. While missing a deadline in school might earn angry glares, failing in obligations to partner nations carries much higher penalties. This cooperation has just as much power to do good, however — building BepiColombo brought the ESA and JAXA together, forging trust and opening communications from the initial agreement all the way to the mission’s launch.
Accepting that collaboration is achievable, what advantages does it bring? On a practical level, joint missions more evenly distribute the financial burden of space exploration. They also allow nations without the resources to pursue solo missions to contribute to the search for knowledge. Collaborative missions could also increase efficiency — a single launch vehicle can carry modules conducting a variety of investigations rather than each being sent as a separate mission. More than just practical considerations, though, working together has a symbolic benefit. These missions will be a way to answer the questions we all share about the solar system we live in, a joint effort to increase the knowledge of humankind. Collaboration in space science will help to ease the tension of competition in other sectors of space development, unifying us, if only in one goal, as man expands towards the stars.
This article is part of the Stanford Space Initiative’s column “Looking Up.”