COSPAR President Says All Space Scientists, Including Russians, Welcome at July Meeting

COSPAR President Says All Space Scientists, Including Russians, Welcome at July Meeting

Len Fisk, president of COSPAR, reaffirmed today that all space scientists, including from Russia, are welcome at the organization’s meeting in Athens this summer despite the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine. Some international organizations are limiting or suspending participation by Russians, but COSPAR argues that “science is platform for dialogue even in times of profound geopolitical conflict.” It’s not business as usual, though. Joint projects with Russia will not be encouraged as they would have been in the past.

COSPAR president Len Fisk speaking at the virtual Space Science Week meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 22, 2022. Screengrab.

A solar physicist, Fisk is the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan and former head of space science at NASA. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he chaired its Space Studies Board (SSB) from 2003-2008.

Fisk spoke at Space Science Week today, a joint meeting of the SSB and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, as he completes his tenure as COSPAR president.

COSPAR is the Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Science. The SSB is the U.S. representative to COSPAR.

Fisk said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “and the unimaginable humanitarian crisis that has resulted has in many ways destroyed the world order in Europe and impacted the international environment in which COSPAR pursues its mission.”

He issued a statement “which is intended both to express COSPAR’s outrage on the invasion and to govern the behavior of COSPAR,” holding to its “long-standing position that science is a platform for dialogue even in times of profound geopolitical conflict, and therefore a resource on which to capitalize to restore and preserve peace.”

Presentation by Len Fisk, COSPAR president, to Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 22, 2022.

Russian space scientists therefore are welcome at the upcoming biennial COSPAR Scientific Assembly in Athens in July “should they be able to participate.”

One difference he pointed out is that COSPAR will not encourage space projects with Russia as they would have in the past or comment on actions being taken in response to sanctions leveled against Russia. Fisk added he does not think Russia will have much of a space program in any case since space science and human spaceflight “require an economy that can support them” and the sanctions make that unlikely.

He sounded a somber note as he closes his eight-year stewardship of COSPAR, the first American to serve as president. Three years ago he urged that space be treated as a global commons open to all “where cooperation is encouraged, competition is discouraged, and conflicts are forbidden,” but the situation today does not engender optimism.

Three years ago in this very venue I spoke on space as a global commons, a resource not owned by any one nation, but crucial to the future of all humankind. And every nation which is able and dedicated to the exploration of space, the conduct of science research coming from space, and the use of space, all for peaceful purposes, should be encouraged and able to do so.

We should be able to claim space as a global commons, where cooperation is encouraged, competition is discouraged, and conflicts are forbidden. And if we do that, we will avoid the worst consequences of the inevitable militarization of space.

That was three years ago. Very little progress has been made on the concept of space as a global commons. And now as the drums of war, even global war, are beginning to beat again, progress is likely to be impossible.

I still think space as a global commons is a goal that we should aspire to. Peace on Earth and space as a global commons, available to all, on behalf of all.

Fisk also addressed the issue of planetary protection, a particular area where COSPAR has relied on input from the SSB over the decades.

COSPAR is the international body that sets planetary protection standards. For decades, the United States and Soviet Union were the only countries sending probes to other planets, but now other countries and the private sector are doing so already or making plans.

Planetary protection refers to protecting other planetary bodies from microbial contamination delivered by probes we send there (forward contamination) and protecting Earth from contamination by microbes that might be brought here by returning spacecraft (back contamination). For scientists, the purpose of protecting the other planetary bodies is so that if any signs of life are discovered, they know it is indigenous.

Fisk stressed that point today. “Planetary protection is not about protecting the planets. It’s about protecting scientific investigations that are conducted on the planets from contamination by terrestrial material” and “protecting the material that is brought back by a spacecraft returning from a planetary body.”

COSPAR takes “seriously our mandate from the U.N. to develop a planetary protection policy that takes into account and balances the interests and capabilities of both governments and non-governmental entities,” Fisk said. During his tenure, COSPAR completely revamped its approach to developing planetary protection policy, bringing in a wider variety of perspectives.

SSB also has been conducting a number of studies with a fresh viewpoint and created a Committee on Planetary Protection to provide advice on how to address the issue in the modern environment.

The relationship between SSB and COSPAR “dealing with the complexities and challenges of planetary protection has been one of the most important relationships in my presidency,” Fisk said, and he hopes it will continue when he departs.

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