NASA Reminds Us That All Mission Agencies Share An Economic Mission

News circulated last week (to the greater public) that NASA was going to be more particular about the level of foreign participation allowed on some of its missions.  This announcement was made in the context of the Discovery missions, which are focused on planetary exploration.

Foreign instrument participation on these missions will be limited to one-third of total instrument costs.  As Science assessed the decision, one of the outcomes will be to avoid the recurrence of NASA-launched missions that have no U.S.-developed scientific instruments.  Now, where the data collected on these missions is concerned, norms of the research community and negotiations with NASA can make sure that the agency can access information gathered by its missions.  But I can see where it would be counterproductive to have a U.S. agency investing hundreds of millions of dollars in non-U.S. instruments.  At a minimum I can see how it might irritate members of Congress interested more in ensuring that federal dollars are spent in their districts and possibly help employ people in their districts.

Not all restrictions on international partnerships in space can be traced to economics.  NASA is under restrictions in working with China, and as the situation in the Ukraine persists, it is possible that restrictions the agency has in working with Russia could increase.  But economics, whether it is budget restrictions or concerns over economic stimulus (though few would call it by that name), is a mission of all so-called mission agencies.  Sure, NASA may be there to explore space and observe the Earth, but ultimately if it doesn’t help contribute ‘enough’ to the American economy, it won’t get as much money for its other missions.

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