Amongst the heavens: literally and metaphorically

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The operatic voice, chapel interior and idiosyncratic sound of the accordion made the beginning of the laboriously entitled meeting, third Italian space agency (ASI), European Space Agency (ESA) international cooperation for sustainable exploration workshop, something else entirely compared to 99% of the conferences I go to in this job.
Usually the trips involve very similar interiors of the metal tubes known as planes and the almost identical d├ęcor of conference centres.
At times, whether it is Florida, Canberra or Paris, it can all look very much alike and you wonder if when you board the plane you really are actually going anywhere.
Perhaps secretly there are scene shifters moving the landscape around as you doze in front of a small seat back screen.
But ASI and ESA had made a refreshing choice with an 11th century Abbey as the location for its third cooperation meeting, albeit in the middle of the countryside that provided for a fun, if not tense, number of junctions where a wrong turn in the hire car (that’s car rental for you Americans) could lead to toll road terror.abbeyW445.JPG

As I was the only aerospace journalist present Flight got an exclusive insight into the process that is forming a worldwide coordination effort for space agencies.
And dinner is usually the best place to get that insight, once the wine begins to flow.
Then the complaints about budget battles within government and past interference by state departments and foreign affairs ministries become common currency.
One story was that a foreign ministry was making noises about a space project and then when asked if it was to pay for the international activity it declined and subsequently so did its interest in the subject.
Other bizarre diplomatic impacts on space agencies include governments that suddenly decide they need a space initiative with another country to help bilateral relations. So the scientists have to think up a mission double quick!
And I was quite impressed that one agency representative posted to Paris could not speak French and he had been there a year and would leave in another 12 months. And they weren’t even British, a nationality notorious for its lack of language skills.
What made this meeting particular interesting was the presence of the Chinese.
Oddly while I had been in Beijing last week I did not get to meet senior figures from the China National Space Administration, yet much closer to home, in rural Italy, here they were.
Disparaged openly by US Congressmen the Chinese have been excluded from major international space efforts up to now due to their one-party state political system. And a visit to the country last year by NASA administrator Michael Griffin did not change that situation. One wonders why he even went?

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Throughout the ASI/ESA meeting’s first morning speech after speech by the delegates was the standard diplomatic fair but thankfully the speakers’ presentations were very short by normal standards. And there was little death by powerpoint.
One common theme was about people from different countries and cultures speaking different languages (however the entire meeting was held in English) working together for a common goal, the exploration of the Moon and Mars and extending the presence of humanity to the other worlds of the solar system.
Its nice sentiment but the cold harsh reality of wanting to opt for cooperation is that international missions are harder for politicians to budget cut to death. The International Space Station, despite all its problems, being a case in point.
I left after the first morning of the three day chin wag knowing that I would be seeing this group of hard headed idealists again in December in Berlin.
But I think we could all agree, framework for coordination or no framework for coordination, that Tuscany in the summer time is a preferable place to be.

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