Zhukov: Innovation in the Final Frontier

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Space, the final frontier.

Those famous words launched every episode of the American classic television series “Star Trek” in the 1960s, and while the TV series was celebrated for its forward-looking technology innovations (those flip communicators would eventually become the prototype to Motorola’s wildly popular StarTAC flip phones 30 years later!), the show should really be remembered for something else; something so futuristic that only now could it hold the solution to space exploration itself.

I’m talking about the notion of global collaboration. Think about it: Captain Kirk was joined on his bridge by Pavel Chekhov, Hikaru Sulu, Scotty, Uhura and “Bones” McCoy, and that eclectic, international collective were just the folks from Earth. Spock was from a completely different planet. And yet that was a model, albeit a fictional, hopeful one, of collaboration and cooperation.

Which brings us to today. Space exploration around the world is in dire straits thanks to the global economic meltdown. Budget money for space missions is drying up. Just a few weeks ago, President Obama proposed a 33% cut in funding for NASA’s Mars Exploration project. And while private initiatives from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Paul Allen, and others, enjoy momentum, and private sector pace, nothing can match the innovation capabilities of an integrated, public/private partnership that includes governments, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors from countries all over the world.

At Skolkovo, we believe we have the framework for just such an initiative.

That might seem surprising, given Russia’s history in space: From early success with Sputnik, to later refusing President Kennedy’s overtures for a joint US/Russian mission to the moon in the 1960s, to the Mir Space Station, and more recently the catastrophic failure of Russia’s “Phobus Grunt” project.

But this isn’t about an initiative from my country. It’s from yours, his, hers, theirs, ours. Skolkovo may live in Russia, but it is being built from contributors all over the world, a kind of United Nations (or to keep the space metaphors going, a United Federation of Planets – Star Trek, or the Galactic Senate – Star Wars) for innovation.

This is what Skolkovo seeks to achieve. Look, we don’t see this research/education/government initiative as the ultimate, only panacea. Our success hinges on a level of cooperation and collaboration that really hasn’t been attempted before. But space exploration offers a unique and global opportunity to put competitive differences and geo-political challenges aside, to pool resources to keep these programs moving forward.

Think about it: In science fiction films and novels, when we land on another planet and introduce ourselves to its inhabitants, we’re not from Russia, or the United States, or Japan, or China. We are Earthlings, representing our planet and not our individual countries. The science fact is that the only way to keep progress alive, in the midst of our global economic challenges, is to approach these programs collectively. We understand there may be some skepticism about those themes coming from us. Point well taken, but someone has to take the first step. And why not us. With all of you.

"Our success hinges on a level of cooperation and collaboration that really hasn’t been attempted before." -Executive Director, Skolkovo, Sergei Zhukov

I know a little something about bridging philosophies and creating dialogues where they didn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist, before.

In my role as the project lead at the Interdisciplinary Innovation Centre of the Military Industrial Complex, my job was to enable an environment of innovation across a variety of personalities and backgrounds. The time has come for a global approach to space exploration, where countries can get together to share ideas, resources, brain-power and lessons learned, shouldering the budget together, to effect real advancement. Budget cuts may seem dire, but they may spur a new generation of global partnership the likes of which the world has never seen.

Whether it’s the US, or Russia, or Japan, China, every nation has celebrated triumph and suffered tragedy in space exploration. There is so much to be learned from each other. Think about what could be learned, not just from the major space agencies you already know of, but from the experts at space programs in Mexico, France, Norway, even Algeria, Vietnam, Nigeria, Mongolia, and literally dozens of others you’re probably not aware of. Likewise, we can work with private initiatives already under way, including Space X, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and so many others. Innovation is everywhere, and mankind’s deep desire to explore depends on tapping that innovation wherever it might be. We see a new kind of space race that benefits the human race, and not just one company or one government.

Skolkovo essentially wants to go where no other initiative has gone before, to explore places that no one has ever explored before. All those joint Space Shuttle missions, the International Space Station, and various missions through the decades have offered glimpses of what collaboration can yield. In this case, amid a global economic tsunami slashing space budgets everywhere, necessity can be the mother of innovation, and mankind’s growth depends on it.

Sergey Zhukov is the Executive Director of the Space Technologies and Communications Cluster at Skolkovo. PhD in Technical Sciences, research cosmonaut, member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics. Graduated cum laude in 1979 from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University specialising in nuclear power plants.