March 31, 2010 — Vol. 3, Issue 3
Jean-Jacques Dordain on Global Opportunities and Challenges
Exploration makes us human, according to Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency.
(Editor’s note: The following is an except of Mr. Dordain's keynote address at PM Challenge, which he delivered on February 9, 2010, in Galveston, Texas.)
Today, I have been invited to share with you my views about space exploration. It is always amazing for me to be asked to give my views to those in an agency that landed a man on the moon, but I’ll do my best.
Exploration is an open-ended process. This means that exploration is a process, not a destination. It started a long time ago along with the origin of humankind. Human experience with exploration is much longer than human experience with space! All continents have contributed to that process, starting from Africa with the first humans who spread to the rest of the world. People from around the Mediterranean, the Chinese, the Vikings, the Europeans, and the Americans have all explored and ventured outside their habitats, never all at the same time but in successive and different steps.
And it will continue, nobody can stop this process; but, as in the past, the process will experience accelerations and pauses.
Accelerations are generated by technology breakthroughs such as the wheel, the ship, the submarine, the plane, the rocket. They are also generated by economic growth and by competition. Pauses are generated by budget constraints and they may also seem to be generated by cooperation, partly because cooperation is forced upon actors by budget constraints and also because building up cooperation takes time. But the succession of accelerations and pauses has never stopped the process of exploration, and will never stop it.
Exploration is inherent to humankind; exploration makes us human and it must involve human presence. However, the question of how best to explore space with humans or robots has never been settled. At the present time, humans are more efficient explorers than robots. But the gap has closed considerably, as robots are becoming increasingly sophisticated partners to precede and support humans in their quest. Consequently, although the debate between the two approaches is still raging, it is a false debate: the right approach is that of a balanced mix of both robots and humans.
Exploration aims at expanding knowledge and at extending the range of human actions. Exploration is not science, even if exploration leads to interesting scientific outcome. Exploration is about discovering the unknown, going where we have never been with a view to exploiting its resources, with a return for our planet.
The benefits must be measured down on Earth: economic growth, technological innovation, scientific information, international cooperation, education. These are all aspects that can contribute to solving problems on planet Earth.
Whether or not you include exploration of planet Earth within exploration is not so important. What matters is that exploration of space should not be conducted to the detriment of exploration of planet Earth since the goals are consistent and complementary.
With exploration, we are therefore addressing the future of planet Earth. It is interesting to see that 40 years after the first landing on the moon by two American astronauts, the significance of that historical step of human exploration is today very different than 40 years ago. At that time, it was a clear demonstration of the supremacy of U.S. technology over the world, and a symbol of the U.S. identity. 40 years later, it is not any more a matter of the moon and the United States, but rather of planet Earth and humankind: there are 27 astronauts who have seen planet Earth as a small and fragile golf ball floating in the universe and, as a result, helped develop the understanding that our future can only be global.
Thanks to that first landing on the moon, we have witnessed two paradigm shifts: the first about the objective, which has shifted from space to planet Earth; and the second about the process, which has shifted from competition to cooperation. We have started with one flag on the moon, then two 2 flags for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, then four with Space Station Freedom, and now five flags for the International Space Station. The cooperative process may be much slower than the competitive race, but it is also much more robust and sustainable.
Future space exploration can indeed only be global, and it will require us to assemble the nations who explored individually in the past so as to explore collectively in the future. This is not easy, not easy at all. This will even be the most difficult part of exploration, much more difficult than any required technological development, but it is necessary. There is no alternative. We shall have to invent the future together.
Make ISS utilization a success
These next ten years are necessary to make ISS utilization a success, to demonstrate to the public and governments that they were right to invest in the ISS. Also, we need time to reap the benefits, be it for science, for technologies, for new partnerships, etc. As I said to the Augustine Committee, we shall not build exploration on the failure of the ISS. So our first priority shall be to ensure the success of the ISS.
These next ten years provide the perspective to improve the ISS and to make it a concrete step towards exploration. The two questions that we should now ask ourselves are how to increase the benefits of the ISS, and how to decrease the costs of using it.
How to increase the benefits of the ISS?
- Increasing capabilities, not by adding new labs, but by reducing the bottlenecks such as storage, communications or download;
- Extending the range of scientific utilization towards new fields such as Earth observation, monitoring of natural disasters, climate change;
- Improving operations, for instance through a common transportation policy or a common operations policy, i.e., defining common interfaces between each partner's elements;
- Testing new systems and technologies, for instance in the fields of life support or resources recycling;
- Extending the partnership to other partners, on conditions to be defined. To be sustainable, the space station partnership cannot be closed.
My biggest fear as the Director General of ESA is that ESA becomes a dinosaur, not any more adapted to its environment. We have to change, to change continuously. This is not easy, in particular because we are a successful agency, and the easiest way would be to keep doing what has made us successful. But the future will not be made with the recipes of the past.
Commercial services may indeed be a way. We have already experienced that in Europe, by creating the commercial operator Arianespace for launch services, but this was 30 years ago. Reflections are ongoing to see how we can further adapt this scenario.
I refuse the much too simple statement that agencies are expensive and industry is cheap. The reality is as usual much more complex: agencies are working under substantial constraints imposed by their governments, such as distribution of activities. Agencies can also be cheaper, and we in ESA shall work together with the other agencies to reduce significantly these utilization costs. Agencies cannot do without industry, but industry also cannot do without agencies.
Develop robotic exploration plans
Last year, ESA and NASA have made a significant step by taking a joint initiative for a systematic robotic exploration of Mars: we have decided to use every opportunity to go to Mars together, and we have already defined joint missions that will be launched in 2016 and 2018. The ultimate goal is a joint Mars Sample Return in the mid-'20s. There also, the partnership is not closed and must be open to other partners.
A major interest of robotic investigation is to involve industrial expertise outside the traditional space industry, and therefore to widen the base of stakeholders and to increase the synergy between space-bound and Earth-bound interests.
Define a human space exploration scenario
As Administrator Bolden noted in his remarks to you earlier today, there is no common vision among international partners about a human space exploration scenario beyond the exploitation of the ISS.
A Global Exploration Strategy has been developed by 14 space agencies of the world, including ESA. But this Global Exploration Strategy has not been addressed at political level and does not represent a political strategy shared by an enlarged community of international partners.
A high-level political forum, including the current partners as well as potential new partners of the ISS, should be set up with the objectives of developing a common vision for exploration.
At the space agency level we can develop a common architecture for human space exploration. But we can't develop the political vision. We are waiting for someone to take the initiative.
Which partner in the world has the willingness and credibility to propose such a political forum? I am convinced that the U.S. is the best suited to take such an initiative...but when?
As the French author and aviator Saint-Exupéry said, "...the question about the future is not to predict it, but to make it possible." So let us work together to make it possible.