As tensions continue to escalate following the United States’ and European Union’s economic sanctions against Russia, the scientific community appears immune to the effects.
Engineering Prof. Lennard Fisk was elected president of the Committee on Space Research at its 40th assembly in Moscow this August, making him the first American to hold the position. He is the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science.
Fisk will serve a four-year term as head of the organization, which facilitates international scientific cooperation in space research. Historically, a European member has served as president while one American and one Russian member have filled the two vice president positions.
“When the Cold War ended, that restriction was lifted, but there were a number of traditionalists that believed it should remain that way and so it’s taken a while to actually elect an American,” Fisk said.
The International Council of Scientific Unions founded COSPAR in 1958, one year after the Soviet Union launched its first satellite into space. Since then, the committee has worked to encourage the exchange of scientific knowledge, even during periods of intense geopolitical conflict.
“Interestingly enough, I was actually elected in Moscow, because that’s where the meeting was being held this year, at a time when one could say, perhaps, that the Cold War was coming back a little bit,” Fisk said.
Relations between the United States, Russia and the E.U. have been severely strained following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, which belonged to neighboring Ukriane. The friction intensified in July after a commercial passenger jet — Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — was reportedly shot down over Ukraine, an act widely believed to be the work of pro-Russian separatists using weapons supplied by Russia. Investigations into the crash are ongoing.
“In fairness to COSPAR, and I think appropriately, at the meeting in Moscow the geopolitical situation was not an issue,” Fisk said. “COSPAR simply rises above those things.”
Several weeks into his tenure, Fisk said he is learning to balance his responsibilities as head of the committee with his other roles. In addition to teaching a graduate course titled “Space Policy and Management,” which teaches students policies between the United States’ and the international space community, he serves as chairman of the board of Michigan Aerospace Corporation, a company he founded with Paul Hays, another former Space Science professor.
Fisk, however, is no stranger to taking on multiple roles. After spending the early part of his career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, he moved to the University of New Hampshire, where he was eventually appointed vice president for research and financial affairs.
In 1987, Fisk returned to NASA as the associate administrator for space science and applications. During his six years in that position, he said he was always working to increase international cooperation among scientists.
“It’s something that has been a part of my career for some time, the concept of international cooperation,” Fisk said. “It’s something that I feel very strongly about.”
Fisk added that improving scientific cooperation through groups such as COSPAR may help settle international conflict on a political level. He referenced the role of Roald Sagdeev, the scientific advisor to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War, who helped to bridge the divide between U.S. and Soviet space scientists.
“The scientific contacts that took place (at the end of the Cold War) between the Soviets and the Americans, particularly in space, I believe had an important impact on how the Cold War ended — peacefully,” Fisk said. “I think that can be always the case — using science to bridge geopolitical differences.”