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Science Partnerships as International Leadership

“Education and Innovation will be the currency of the 21st Century,” declared President Obama in a speech last month.  This ‘Cairo Speech’ outlined a science and technology partnership strategy with the Muslim community, but its message is for any country.  NASA is uniquely positioned to be support the Obama Administration with this vision of international engagement through scientific and technical partnerships.

Artist conception of SAC-C spacecraft

Artist conception of SAC-C

Historically, space has created a unique environment for scientific and technical collaboration outside the realms of political ideologies to pursue aims of international peace and stability.  While there has been a strong element of national competition associated with space activities, the nature of science inherently provides room for research and tangible benefits which transcend borders.  Some notable examples are the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 (Russia), the progression from Space Station Freedom to the International Space Station (Russia) or the retirement of the Argentina’s Condor II Medium Range Ballistic Missile (resulted in the establishment of Argentina National Commission on Space Activities – CONAE – and an agreement on the Satelite de Aplicaciones Cientificas – SAC – series of satellites with NASA cooperation).

“Peaceful engagement with potential adversaries frequently makes them long-term partners in pursuit of the common goal of international peace and stability.” — Charles Bolden STATEMENT BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION SUBCOMMITTEE ON SCIENCE AND SPACE June 7, 2006

NASA has been a vehicle for transitioning U.S. adversaries to partners and advanced military technology toward peaceful purposes.  NASA can continue this role, but can also provide solutions to unique 21st century challenges.  Today, international collaboration is shifting toward partnerships based on mutual respect and benefit, rather than one actor having a greater influence over the other.  From my experience at NASA, successful partnerships are fostered not forced.  The best partnerships occur when there is already an existing relationship with subject matter experts at the working level.  When the political environment is ripe for a partnership, you can bring greater resources and visibility to formalize and enhance the partnership.  Too often potential partnerships become overly complicated, and the more you minimize the actors, dependencies on external events, and avoid scope creep, the better.  Finally, successful partnerships are more likely when there is a clear goal with implementable short-term wins and an overall work package that can be achieved within the next 24 months (i.e. within the U.S. political time horizon).

Partnership Tenants
•    Mutual respect, mutual benefit
•    Existing relationship with subject matter experts
•    Correct political timing
•    KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
•    Clear goal, implementable, and short time-frame for success

International Space Station Partners

International Space Station Partners

Today, the majority of NASA’s collaborations globally can roughly be placed in two categories: human and scientific.  Human space-flight collaborations offer unique constraints toward adopting the partnership tenants outlined above, but have had successful collaborations with numerous developed nations.  On the science-side of the house, this is a different story. Rarely will you find a Science Mission Directorate (SMD) mission with an all U.S. science team and often some Americans are scientific diasporas from other nations.  Additionally, many countries allow usage of ground stations for mission operations, provide in-kind support, and like NASA, offer secondary payload opportunities for additional instruments.

An investigation of NASA’s international agreements, including informal collaborations, can greatly catalyze effective partnerships wanted by the Obama Administration. I would like to underscore informal collaboration: many of NASA’s scientific and technical workforce have very good working relations with their peers in other countries and are not part of existing international agreements.  By tapping into NASA’s workforce, collaborations can turn to international partnerships and help achieve Obama goals of promoting international scientific and technical literacy, capacity building, development and trade, ultimately leading to education and innovation.  The areas of Earth science applications and small spacecraft projects are particularly attractive as these areas have a relatively low barrier to entry, aren’t on NASA’s critical path and have the capacity to be completed in a relatively short time period.  Furthermore, this would enable NASA partnerships with a greater number of developing and transitioning countries.

While the United States develops plans to implement President Obama’s goals, NASA is uniquely positioned to join the Department of State and the Executive Office of the President to take an international leadership role through scientific partnerships. Education and innovation in science and technology are going to be the new currency of international relations.

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