Out of this World — International Cooperation in Space

Episode Summary

In this installment of the FrancoFiles Podcast, we chat with Anthony Tsougranis, an International Programs Specialist at NASA. He is at the forefront of supporting projects with European and international space organizations like CNES, the French Space Agency, and ESA, the European Space Agency, both of which we will virtually visit in this episode. With Anthony, we also explore topics like recent Franco-American partnerships with SpaceX, the SuperCam on the Mars Perseverance Rover and then much anticipated international missions like the launch of the James Webb telescope from French Guiana and the FIRST woman on the moon. Any one of those achievements would be a stellar feat, but it’s just another day at the office for Anthony and his colleagues. Enjoy this out-of-this-world episode on the final frontier!

Episode Transcription

[00:11] Andrea Fort - From the Embassy of France in the United States this is FrancoFiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the US. My name is Andrea and I will be your host. Today I am joined by Anthony Tsougranis, an International Programs Specialist at NASA who works on international civil space cooperation. Before you hit the rewind button, here’s a quick translation of his title: He is at the forefront of supporting projects with European and international space organizations like CNES, the French Space Agency, and ESA- European space agency, both of which we will talk about today. We’ll also explore topics like recent Franco-American partnerships with Space-X, the supercam on the Mars Perseverance Rover, and then much-anticipated programs like the launch of the James Webb telescope, and the first woman on the moon. Any one of these achievements would be a stellar feat, but it’s just another day at the office for Anthony and his colleagues. Join Anthony and I as we explore current and future transatlantic civil space ties and delve into the benefits for nations that come together to explore the universe and push boundaries of science. Anthony, welcome to FrancoFiles! Pleased to have you.

[01:33] Anthony Tsougranis - Thank you Andrea. It is my pleasure to join you. One disclaimer - as we get started: The opinions I express today are my own, and do not necessarily represent NASA’s positions.

[01:44] Andrea - Of course. I understand. So I think with that Anthony, I think it’s important to describe to our FrancoFiles audience your role for the last 18 years as a liaison for civil space cooperation between the US and Europe, including France.

[02:01] Anthony - Certainly, I’m happy to talk about that. So, I work in NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations as an International Programs Specialist. We are the in-house NASA office that is responsible for relations with partners from around the world and within the US Government. I work on the international side of the house, as my title suggests. Our work includes supporting NASA leadership, our Centers, and our Mission Directorates, NASA’s main lines of business in Science, Human Exploration Operations, Space Technology, and Aeronautics. So in our daily duties we negotiate agreements, we staff senior leader trips and visits, and we prepare logistics and substance alike, and we manage relationships with other countries. Specifically in my job I work with colleagues who are responsible for supporting the different programmatic areas of collaboration with European entities, including with the European Space Agency, ESA and CNES, the French Space Agency. In the case of CNES, we work closely both with the CNES representative and space attaché here in Washington, D.C., Nicolas Maubert, as well as with CNES Headquarters in Paris, and also as appropriate with CNES colleagues throughout France on specific projects and programs.

[03:23] Andrea - I see. And I wanted to touch on a specific moment early on in your career that required your involvement in an important treaty with the government of France, the Embassy, and the government of the United States. Tell us about this historic chapter in French-American cooperation.

[03:41] Anthony - Indeed Andrea, this was a formative experience early in my NASA career. So I joined NASA a little less than a year after the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew. And as a result of a review of the causes of the accident, there was one recommendation to establish an additional landing site for the Space Shuttle in case of an emergency, to add to our existing sites, at the time in Moron and Zaragoza, in Spain, and I was given the task to lead NASA’s efforts to establish this site in France at Istres Air Base, near Marseille. So this ended up a year-long effort and it took up a lot of my time during that year. I worked with many of my colleagues – now friends. Jean Jacques Tortora, who is one of Nicolas Maubert’s predecessors, now Director of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna, was instrumental in helping us reach this agreement. And countless colleagues, colleagues such as Fernando Echavarria and Mark Simonov at the US State Department, and in-house at NASA Dennis McSweeney, Glen Lockwood, Jim Higgins, Mick Schlabs at NASA, all of them played an important role- I’m sure I’m forgetting some people so I apologize for that- everybody was critical in our success. And the main thing was that this was a true team effort – as is nearly everything we do in this business. And the most important takeaway for me from this whole endeavor was the strong friendship between France and the United States. I was impressed by the depth of commitment to our bilateral relationship, especially by members of the French AirForce, they were so hospitable when we visited, and did everything that they could to accommodate this collaboration. And so after all these efforts, an agreement was signed by the then NASA Administrator, and the former Ambassador of France to the United States. When we eventually had our first return flight of the Space Shuttle, and I was listening to the flight control voice loop, I was proud to hear that Istres was a “go” for launch. In that one moment, all of our efforts were crystalized. And I knew that – God forbid – if there were an emergency during ascent, France would be ready and by our side to help. And I had a smile on my face for the rest of the day that day.

[06:11] Andrea - I can imagine, yes that sounds like an incredible team operation and collaborative work that ended up to be a successful mission. So thank you for your role in that! And, you know we both can agree, Anthony, that this has been a tough year. And at the same time we can observe that there is this revival of interest and marvel for space exploration! Lately, two major events that highlighted specifically Franco-American and European cooperation. First, in February with the successful landing of the Mars Perseverance Rover which carried the French “SuperCam” and then most recently in April, with SpaceX flight to the International Space Station, which had aboard ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who is in fact the first French commander of the ISS. So tell me Anthony, what do these events mean on a deeper level of our transatlantic relations? I mean, how did we get here?

[07:16] Anthony - Thanks for that, Andrea. Yeah, in fact, this was a very important period with a flurry of activity. I would start the story a bit earlier, and frame it a bit more broadly. So in the midst of a horrible pandemic that has claimed many lives and that brought the world to its knees, our space agencies have provided hope and inspiration to a world that sorely needed both. In the summer of 2020, we had not one, not two, but three successful launches of Missions to Mars. First Hope, by our Emirati colleagues, then Tianwen-1 by our Chinese colleagues, and finally Perseverance by NASA, which of course included the French SuperCam as one of its instruments. We also celebrated 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS, which of course includes French contributions through the European Space Agency, astronauts of French Nationality, French experiments, etc. And then fast forward to this year, the Emirati Amal probe successfully entered orbit around Mars, Perseverance and Zhurong – the Chinese lander, both successfully made it the surface of Mars – with lots of exciting science to be forthcoming, and of course the Crew-2 Mission, on a SpaceX Falcon 9, the third commercial spaceflight brought a four person crew, including ESA astronaut – with a French passport – Thomas Pesquet, who will become the first French ISS commander towards the end of his planned six month mission aboard the ISS and who was also the first European astronaut aboard the Crew Dragon. And finally, just rounding up the year we should also not forget that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the first flight by Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. So, there’s lots to celebrate in France, in the US, and around the world.

[09:14] Andrea - Absolutely, yeah that’s a lot to commemorate. And you mentioned Space-X and there’s something that comes to mind: do you think that the private sector is reshaping intergovernmental cooperation in space? I mean, how do you see the future of Franco-American, or just international cooperation with the emergence of the private sector?

[09:33] Anthony - So the private sector has always had an important place in space activities. I think that the private sector at the moment is reinvigorating the entire space community, and it’s helping us reimagine and rethink how to do things. “New Space” companies have redefined the game. And there’s much more to come, I believe. And I’m really excited about that. Space becomes more “democratic” if you may, when the cost of access goes down and reusability is integrated, which is what is going on. And I think that between governments, the more established space companies and the more agile new entrants, we have a dynamic and exciting ecosystem of redundant and dissimilar capabilities. And I think that competition is healthy and that there are also plenty of opportunities both for cooperation and for competition in this environment.

[10:37] Andrea - Yes, interesting to hear your thoughts about that. And if we’re talking about future projects, as well, I know that later this year, the James Webb telescope is scheduled to be launched from French Guiana. What can you tell us about that mission?

[10:48] Anthony - So I’m not an expert on this I am happy to share what I know. The James Space Telescope (JWST) is an orbiting infrared observatory. It will launch from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 launcher, and it will also include European contributions to on-board instruments. The mission itself is a joint project between NASA, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. Between Arianespace, CNES and ESA, Europe generally, and France specifically, have a critical part in this mission. JWST, which is the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space. And in my estimation, it will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe. So I am personally very excited about the launch and the science that will come out of this mission.

[11:46] Andrea - Yeah me too. And what year will this be in?

[11:50] Anthony - So it’s planned for this year, but I am not tracking the timing very closely.

[11:57] Andrea - Well we can all look forward to that. And there’s something else that I’m looking forward to and that is NASA’s Artemis Program, which has been in the news lately. What can you tell us about the Artemis Program? I know there seems to be much more reliance on international collaboration than there was in previous programs like the Apollo program. Why do you think that is?

[12:16] Anthony - Thanks, Andrea. So I’ll be happy to say a few words about the Artemis program, but let me answer your last question first. The world was at a very different place during the Apollo era. That program was done in the context of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was some international collaboration, for example Australian and Spanish ground stations supported the missions, but generally, the rest of the world had not yet caught up with the US and the USSR. Fast forward to today and there are many nations and organizations with robust technical capabilities and scientific know-how, many of which are in Europe by the way. And we also have the experience of decades of successful international collaboration, and we know how important international collaboration is and how when we work together the sum can be bigger than the parts. With respect to the Artemis program itself, the idea is to establish a sustainable and permanent human presence in deep space. So we’ll start with landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. We are then going to establish long term exploration on and around the Moon, and we’ll use what we learn there to send humans to Mars. And we are going to do this with our international and commercial partners. And we are going to do this with transparency and responsibly, for the benefit of all, and to ensure a safe and sustainable environment for outer space activities.

[13:49] Andrea - Amazing. You know, when you’re talking about these missions, you know obviously there is a giant team operation happening internationally for these things to happen, for these things to take place. And I can’t help but do a little shout-out for our talented team here at the embassy representatives of the French Space Embassy. And it reminds me of one of the conversations that I had recently with the attache, the Space Counselor was about how space cooperation is crucial for climate action and even combating space pollution and the “space debris” that is orbiting earth. What do you know about partnerships or programs from NASA or the Space agencies abroad that are contributing to address these major challenges?

[14:39] Anthony - So this is again not an area that I am an expert in, but wanted to reflect a bit and think about the bigger picture. So when we start talking about our planet, and climate, and space debris and all that, I think of Earth as a blue marble. There is a famous, iconic, blue marble picture of the Earth that was taken in 1972 by the Apollo 17 astronauts. And I’m sure you’ve seen it because it’s everything. When I look at that picture, our planet, it fragile planet is floating in dark space, and when I look at that pictures it helps provide some clarity for me. There are no borders in that picture . The Atmosphere that makes life possible on our planet looks as thin as the skin of an apple. And there you have it. Pollution knows no borders. Pandemics know no borders. Transnational crime knows no borders. Hatred and division, war and famine, disease, they can pop up anywhere. We all are passengers on this planet, on planet Earth, and we can be proud of our countries of origin, and we can have different philosophies and ideologies and different forms of government, but we face common problems. So, we have to find a way to work together. Dealing with climate change requires collective action and space agencies are particularly well equipped to help collect and share data and observations to help shape our response. Similarly, since you mentioned space debris, acting responsibly and transparently so we can ensure a safe and sustainable environment for outer space activities, is also essential.

[16:25] Andrea - Absolutely. Thank you for your insight, Anthony. And I believe it’s worth mentioning to our audience that your accomplishments in the last 18 years have earned you awards from NASA, even most recently in January you were awarded with NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal for the success of the International Astronautical Congress which actually was here in Washington, DC in 2019. And my question to you, or my questions is: what kind of live-collaboration do you see at the IAC that makes you say “gee, this is happening, this what global cooperation is all about ’’. You know, in other words, what gives you the greatest sense of pride in your work at NASA and in events like the IAC?

[17:09] Anthony - Thanks, thanks for that, Andrea. So again, I’m going to try to put things in context. Yes, I have received a few awards over the years, but every single recognition I have ever received is the result of a group effort and collaboration with talented and dedicated colleagues from around the globe. I am an average and imperfect individual, having the exceptional privilege to work for an organization with an inspiring mission and with colleagues who are far more talented and smarter than I am or I will ever be. So my job is to build bridges. In a world that has so much division and discord, my goal is to help identify win-win situations. There are many things that divide us, but there are also many things that can unite us. So I’d like us to focus on the latter, to find ways to work together, to overcome our differences. And that’s the essence of my profession, frankly, and that’s what we do when we get together each year at the International Astronautical Congress each year in a different part of the world. To quote President Kennedy, from a famous speech he made to an American University audience in the summer of 1963, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

[18:44] Andrea - And Anthony, as we finish our discussion here, is there a personal anecdote you would like to share with our listeners, you’ve shared a really great quote by Kennedy but I want to know is there a moment that has impacted you that you’d like to share with our audience today.

[18:56] Anthony - Yes, there are actually many moments in my career that have impacted me greatly. This one is relatively recent, so the 2019 IAC was held in Washington DC. And the most prestigious award of the International Astronautical Federation, that’s the organization that oversees the IAC, is the World Space Award. For 2019 NASA nominated the Apollo 11 Crew for this award, and I was responsible for drafting and submitting the nomination package. And they were selected for the award. So, 50 years after I watched the Moon landing on a black and white TV, on a small black and white TV as a three year old, ever since catching the space bug, 50 years later, I was standing a few feet away, in the presence of history, as Buzz Aldrin, Mark Armstrong, one of Neil Armstrong’s sons, and Luke Newell, a grandson of Michael Collins received the award. Things had come full circle.

[19:58] Andrea - Indeed they have, that sounds really nice. Anthony, thank you for that very special anecdote and I wish you luck for the continuation of your career which I know will positively impact many in the field here in the US and France and everywhere else. Take care.

[20:13] Anthony - Thank you, Andrea. It was a pleasure to be with you.

[20:18] Andrea - As always, thank you for listening to FrancoFiles. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @francofilespod and visit our website for more information. To indulge in more stories about French-American culture, check out our partner France-Amérique Magazine. Stay tuned, Francophiles and until next time, à bientôt.