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New rule restricting foreign instruments on NASA space probes stirs debate

Mars InSight
NASA (public domain)

A recent rule restricting the number of foreign made instruments to one third of the total on NASA’s Discovery class missions has caused Bloomberg to pontificate this past Friday on “nativists” at the space agency who are allegedly putting international cooperation in space exploration at risk. However Science Magazine counters that there are actually sound policy reasons for this rule. In any case the space agency’s search for both international and commercial partners in its exploration efforts seems alive and well.

Bloomberg states, “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.)”

The rule applies to NASA’s Discovery class missions, which are designed to be cheap, focused, and with a fast turnaround. Previous examples of these types of missions include Mars Pathfinder and Lunar Prospector. The most current mission of this class is InSight, a lander that will be headed to Mars in a couple of years. Therein lies the problem.

According to Science Magazine, “The new rule is a response to a current Discovery-class mission with no major U.S.-made instruments. InSight, a Mars lander built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, that will launch in 2016, carries a French-made seismometer and a German-made heat probe. ’The American scientific instrument community was not happy with that,’ says Michael New, the lead Discovery Program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“NASA wants to make sure that some of the $18 million a year the agency invests in developing planetary science instruments pays off, New says. He also points out that NASA has less ability to enforce the on-time delivery of foreign instruments and ensure that data from those instruments get shared quickly with the public. ‘With foreign contributions come increased risk and increased potential problems with data archiving,’ he says.”

The Bloomberg article also mentions the continuing rule freezing out China entirely from participation in NASA space projects. The rule is in response of a congressional mandate, passed out of concern for China’s human rights policy and its continuing hostility toward other countries, which includes saber rattling in the East and South China Seas. Some have suggested that the recent dustup with Russia, which has threatened to pull out of the International Space Station in response to economic sanctions imposed because of that country’s aggression in the Ukraine, illustrates the danger of space cooperation with countries which are hostile on Earth.

Foreign contributors are not being barred from NASA space exploration projects. The upcoming Mars 2020 rover will contain three instruments from European countries. The Orion spacecraft will include a service module built by the European Space Agency. When humans finally venture beyond low Earth orbit, whether to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars, foreign astronauts will almost certainly be part of the crew. The United States has recognized the value of its space program as a tool for diplomacy and soft power since at least 1984, when President Reagan first proposed building a space station with Europe, Japan, and Canada.

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