The Politics of the International Space Station

International Partnerships Crucial to Survival of ISS

Listen: Listen to Eugene Skolnikoff discuss the political history behind the International Space Station.

International Space Station

The International Space Station as photographed in December 2002. European Space Agency hide caption

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Space Station Mir

Russia already had its own space station, Mir, when it joined the American-led ISS project. NASA hide caption

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Current ISS Crew

The current space station crew. From left: Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, American science officer Donald Pettit and American commander Kenneth Bowersox. NASA hide caption

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The Russian Soyuz launch vehicle is moved to the launch pad. With NASA's shuttle fleet grounded, Russia now bears the responsibility for maintaining scheduled flights to the ISS. European Space Agency hide caption

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The current ISS crew will be ferried home aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft like this one, seen here approaching the space station. NASA hide caption

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European and Russian space officials meet next week to discuss how to pay for two Russian supply flights to the International Space Station. The station needs fuel, water and food that are usually carried up by NASA's shuttle fleet, which is currently grounded in the wake of the Columbia disaster. Russia says it needs $100 million dollars to keep its launches on schedule. But European partners are balking at the cost, and a U.S. law prohibits NASA from paying Russia for the flights.

Maintaining a space outpost with the help of 15 other countries has proven difficult for the United States, both politically and technically, but as NPR's Eric Niiler reports, the station's international partnership — though imperfect — is crucial to its survival.

The International Space Station was first conceived in the waning years of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was preparing to launch its own space station, called Mir, which went into orbit in 1986. The United States wanted to match its superpower rival. President Ronald Reagan announced plans for a U.S.-led project during his 1984 State of the Union address.

"A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space," Reagan said at the time. "NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals."

The United States did bring in other countries — Japan, France, Canada and West Germany — to help fund the project while solidifying America's alliances. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1993 the United States decided to expand its international partnership by inviting Russia to join the space station effort. Eugene Skolnikoff, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that although the project was international from the start, the United States was clearly in charge.

"We would decide what we wanted to do and tell others what to do and pony up the money," Skolnikoff says. "We tended to do this unilaterally and tell the others they had to go along."

Although nearly 20 years have passed since President Reagan announced his ambitious plan, the station remains only partially built. The promised quantum leaps in technology and medicine still haven't materialized, and budget cuts have severely curtailed the ability to conduct scientific research on the station. James Lewis, space analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says that given these cuts, the station has lost its original justification.

"The space station doesn't have any more reason for being except for showing we can do something in space and have a reason to cooperate with other countries," Lewis says.

That international cooperation has proven extremely valuable since the shuttle Columbia broke up last month. With further shuttle flights on hold, NASA has to rely exclusively on its Russian partners to ferry supplies to the station and bring the existing crew home in May. And the United States is turning to its European allies to pay for these Russian supply flights. Although the United States brought these nations into the project for abstract political reasons, now their help is more concrete, says John Logsdon, a political scientist at the George Washington University and member of the panel investigating the shuttle disaster.

"One thing that the current situation shows is the wisdom of an international partnership," Logsdon says. "When the U.S. runs into a problem, it has partners in Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada that it can turn to for assistance."

As tensions grow between the United States and its allies over a possible war in Iraq, some worry that this dispute could affect the International Space Station. The United States and its partners still need to resolve funding issues and decide who will get to use the station once it’s complete. Given the current political climate on Earth, Logsdon says keeping the station running in space will require "creative diplomacy."

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