Outer space, the global workplace that can teach multinationals a thing or two

Ross’s work commute
Ross’s work commute
Image: Courtesy of NASA
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Jerry Ross got his first taste of international collaboration in space. In his 22-year-long career at NASA he worked with the Russians on the International Space Station, conducted nine space walks and witnessed the founding of the the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), an international group for astronauts and cosmonauts.

America and Russia competed in the space race for most of the 1950s and 1960s but in 1975 the former enemies worked together on the Apollo-Soyuz Mission. By 1998, the two countries began constructing the International Space Station. Ross was invited to the Soviet Union in 1990 as a member of the ASE and saw the inner workings of its space program when few Americans were privy to the communist country.

He’s seen the final frontier transform from a time when the US and Russia were preoccupied by simply getting as far as the Moon and building the International Space Station; now astronauts hail from Asia and Europe and missions have expanded to Mars and beyond. Ross, author of the upcoming book Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer, thinks that even down here on Earth there will need to be more international cooperation to overcome dwindling budgets and achieve big goals. Edited excerpts:

Quartz: What was it like visiting the Soviet Union so soon after the [Berlin] Wall came down?

Jerry Ross: It was a weird sensation to go to someplace that was seen as an enemy. I had a military background so I knew we had missiles targeting the places we were visiting. There was certainly a sense of mistrust, a sense of the unknown. I had heard stories during the Apollo era, when we flew a joint mission with the Russians, that one of our crew members went to visit Russia and they thought their hotel rooms were bugged and there were all these spies around them whenever they were talking about technical details about anything. So it was a very interesting opportunity that I never thought I’d have, a chance to visit and to meet some of their citizens.

QZ: What role do you think space exploration played in normalizing relations between the US and Russia?

JR: I think it played a very important role. It played a very important role in our competition in the Cold War when we developed the space race and then I think it also helped play an important role behind the scenes trying to learn to trust and work together. I think this was probably one of the most important aspects of the Apollo-Soyuz program and certainly the International Space Station gave us an opportunity to get to know people on a one-on-one basis.

QZ: What was the biggest hurdle in working with international astronauts like the Russians?

JR: Well other than language, which is a tremendous hurdle when you have to rely on interpreters or wait until you have gained some knowledge of the other language, I think with the Russians it was just mistrust. We had read everything in our newspapers or seen on TV about them being people that you can’t trust, building rockets headed our way, sending spies to steal our secrets and all that. It just takes time to trust them and to trust their technologies and get to know them and finally accept them.

QZ: What could global companies have to learn from the international space program?

JR: I think they should realize there are great opportunities out there to work internationally, but they don’t come without risks and they don’t come without complications. Things are going to be harder in most cases because you’re going to be dealing with time zones, you’re going to be dealing with customs, and different politics and all those things.

It will take more effort, it will take more diligence, it will take more understanding, it will take patience. But the bottom line we learned is that the space program is very expensive so we don’t have all the resources we would like to have. So we have learned to augment what we want to do with other capabilities from around the world. Also, we have learned that we don’t always have the right ways to do business, we don’t have all the smartest people in the world. Even though other people have done things differently, it doesn’t mean it’s worse, it means it’s different.

Just like the International Space Station, you will remember we had a space shuttle accident that killed seven crew members and stopped us flying for a couple years. Had we not had our Russian partners who still had the capabilities to fly to and from the [station] we probably would have lost important research capabilities and all the money and years we spent developing it. We would not have been able to visit the International Space Station and it may have come to a point where it would have been unmannable by the time we got our space shuttle there again.

QZ: What comes next for international cooperation in space?

JR: It’s a little bit unknown now because of what has happened over the last four years. Our next program we were planning to do, which was called Constellation, has been basically canceled or greatly modified. The other thing that’s happened with all of the budget problems in our country [is that] NASA was directed to cancel quite a few of our plans for unmanned interplanetary missions. Some of those are being resurrected again as Congress and others get involved in redefining what we are going to do. But the problem is that several of those programs that were canceled were joint international programs with our Japanese, Russians and European partners. Since those have been canceled, we’ve kind of broken our promises to those countries and they are scrambling trying to figure out how to reorganize and try and carry on some of the programs without us.

QZ: None of those partners’ economies are doing great, so its must be hard to pick up America’s slack.

JR: I totally agree. That’s why the solid foundation we have established through the International Space Station program hopefully will give us the capability to work even more fully together on future programs. It can’t be left up to any one of our countries; there is probably not the national resolve or resources to do these things.