I have been working for the United States' space agency, "NASA" for about 15 years delivering a seminar two times a year in international/intercultural negotiations.
The program has been part of their International Project Management Training Program for people from the U.S. and other space-faring countries who collaborate in space.
The imagery of the International Space Station, circling 250 miles above the earth’s surface, is a beautiful metaphor for what we can create when we tap into the exponential potential of cooperation across the divides of culture and difference. Similarly, I have been profoundly moved by the photos of our planet coming from space missions -- the first from the Apollo mission in 1968, and now from Voyager -- of the tiny, tiny blue dot that floats in the middle of a vast morass of nothingness. Especially when facilitating difficult conversations, I often show this image to clients because I think it helps keep things in perspective.
In this episode, I interview James Zimmerman (“Jim”), a retired National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official, who describes space exploration as a case study for international cooperation. Jim recounts the history of space exploration as a tale of competition evolving to cooperation.
He talks about his personal journey and how he came to work in the field of international relations, then with NASA and his tenure as President of the International Astronautical Federation (the “IAF”), an international organization based in Paris whose members include space agencies, companies and professional societies.
Jim describes how space exploration is a relatively new phenomena which began in the 1950’s during the Cold War and the competition between the then Soviet Union and the United States. The seeds that nurtured space activities in that era were, as he says, “not collaborative at all, they were political, competitive and focusing on which political system could produce the best types of results.” Over the years the paradigm has shifted, from nationalism and competition, to an environment where scientists and engineers realize that collaboration is not just an option, but the best way forward given the limitations of financial and human resources. And, importantly, scientists have discovered how much value collaboration can create in spite of the fact that the technologies they are using can be militarily restricted.
Jim tells some wonderful stories about the important lessons he learned about intercultural negotiations and the need for respecting people from other parts of the world, cultural differences, listening and understanding different perspectives. How do you move forward when your partners are Russian, Japanese, European, Chinese, Indian, South American and you must build consensus?
Jim’s final reflections are about how space is a unique place to invest in a peaceful future. For the relatively small cost we pay in each of our countries, space exploration brings out the best in humanity. This sentiment is echoed by the Head of NASA, Charlie Bolden, who was the keynote speaker at this year's Alliance for Peacebuilding conference and you can read his speech here.
Stream or download this episode here. Please email me or leave your comments wherever you may wander in the social media world.
Thanks for listening and be sure to tune in again.
p.s. My apologies for mis-pronouncing Carl Sagan’s name.