NASA Nativists Will Never Get to Mars

A new rule would restrict the amount of foreign equipment on certain U.S. space missions, for no good reason, just when the agency most needs collaborators.
Foreign equipment helped bring back images from NASA's Dawn mission.

The days when the U.S. could fund space exploration on its own arguably ended with the Apollo moon landings. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is well-funded, but not nearly to the degree necessary to fulfill its ambitions or those of its supporters. Fortunately, the U.S. isn't alone in its space aspirations, and for decades NASA has invited financial, technical and scientific contributions from international collaborators eager to work with the world's premier space program. It's a good deal for everyone. NASA gains knowledge and funding (either direct or in-kind); its collaborators gain access to expensive and technically sophisticated NASA missions.

As NASA's ambitions grow into the 21st century, and especially as it considers launching humans to Mars and the asteroids, those collaborations will become even more important. Unfortunately, the agency seems to be closing doors on old and potentially new partners.

At the moment, for example, NASA scientists are prohibited by law from having bilateral discussions with their Chinese counterparts because of national-security concerns. More worryingly, in early July, NASA announced a misguided rule that restricts the ability of foreign collaborators to contribute scientific instruments to certain types of American planetary space probes. (Scientists received a briefing this week on the rule, which brought it to the attention of the wider scientific community.)

Specifically, the rule applies to NASA's Discovery program, an innovative and highly successful set of low-cost missions designed to "achieve outstanding results by launching many smaller missions using fewer resources and shorter development times," in contrast to far more expensive flagship projects such as NASA's multiyear Cassini mission to Saturn. Curiously, the edict doesn't restrict the number of foreign-built scientific instruments that a U.S. space probe can carry. But the value of those instruments can now amount to no more than one-third of the value of all the U.S. instruments onboard.

If the U.S. were paying for those foreign instruments, this might make some sense. But those instruments -- which are provided by their makers at no cost to NASA -- don't count against the $450 million budget for a Discovery mission. So in pursuit of a more American space probe, NASA appears willing to forgo expensive scientific instruments that its budgets won't allow.

Had that rule existed at the origins of the Discovery program in 1992, the scientific payloads might have looked very different. For example, two of the three major scientific instruments on the current Dawn mission are European (a German camera and an Italian spectrometer) -- chosen because they were judged to be the best instruments for the purpose.

Likewise, both of the major scientific instruments for the under-construction InSight probe to Mars (scheduled for 2016) are European in origin. On Tuesday, the principle investigator on that upcoming mission defended their selection to Science as "the best and almost sole source" for those instruments. Nonetheless, according to Michael New, the lead Discovery Program scientist at NASA headquarters, "the American scientific instrument community was not happy with that."

No one's saying U.S. space-instrument makers shouldn't have a fair shot at placing their instruments on a U.S. space probe. But if European collaborators can do better, then it's in NASA's interests to use them. There's no reason for NASA to capriciously eliminate quality collaborators simply because their instruments are produced elsewhere.

Ultimately, NASA and its overseers need to seriously consider the message and impact that restricting foreign (and especially, European) participation in the U.S. space program sends. In recent weeks, the European Space Agency has indicated that it's open to human space collaboration with China. Such a partnership would probably come at the expense of Europe's participation in the U.S.-led International Space Station.

For now, that seems an unlikely prospect. But if NASA further restricts the ability of Europeans to participate in U.S.-led space exploration, it should be prepared to see them look for new partners.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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