For more than 20 years, the International Space Station has served not only as a revolving laboratory for science, but also as a vehicle for diplomacy. It houses astronauts from 19 different countries who work side by side in space when, in some cases, their leaders couldn’t find their way on the ground.
The station is the size of a soccer field and speeds through space at 17,500 miles per hour. It is a symbol of collaboration in wars and turmoil and is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize for many in the space community to recognize it as “the greatest” international peace effort in human history, “said Dylan Taylor, a longtime space entrepreneur, in a blog post from the year 2020 argued.
But the fragile coalition that has kept the space station running all these years is crumbling as tensions between Russia and the United States, the station’s two main partners, rise to levels not seen in years. And while countries have kept their alliance on the station going despite geopolitical tensions, the fence that has sealed off the station and civil space efforts from other problems is beginning to erode.
All of this complicates efforts to extend the life of the station and keep the partnership going.
The space station “could be a climax for US-Russia relations,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump administration. “But it’s not invulnerable… If we started over today, we wouldn’t have the Russians as partners on the station. That happened in another, more hopeful era. “
Today Russia and the United States are at odds on several issues, including Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine. The Biden government has also imposed sanctions on Russian leaders for poisoning Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and one of the fiercest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has also sanctioned Russia for meddling in the US elections and penalized Russian companies for helping Russian hackers.
To make matters worse, General David Thompson, the Space Force’s first deputy chief of space operations, recently told the Post that Russia and China are constantly attacking US satellites in a variety of ways, including lasers, jammers, and cyber intrusions.
“The threats are really increasing and increasing every day,” he said. “And it’s really an evolution of activity that has been going on for a long time.”
The tensions have violated the inviolability of the civil space efforts of countries traditionally shielded from military and political skirmishes.
Last month, Russia fired a missile that destroyed one of its dead weather satellites and created a vast field of more than 1,500 debris that threatened the space station. After the test, NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts had to crouch in their spacecraft and wait to see if the station was hit and if they had to leave for their home.
The missile attack was strongly condemned by members of the Biden government.
“By blowing wreckage through space, this irresponsible act has endangered other nations’ satellites as well as astronauts on the International Space Station,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as chair of the National Space Council, earlier this month.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “ruthless and dangerous” and said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing act”. He added that the attack was an act of the military and that he believed that members of the Russian space agency “were unaware of it. And they are probably just as horrified as we are. “
Earlier this year, Ars Technica reported that Russian officials accused NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor of drilling a hole in the space station during a personal crisis. After the article was published, senior NASA officials came to her aid. “We stand behind Serena and her professional behavior,” wrote Kathy Lueders, deputy director of the directorate for space missions at NASA, on Twitter. “We don’t think these allegations are credible.”
Tensions will complicate plans to extend the life of the space station, which is showing signs of age after more than 20 years in the vacuum of space. Congress is expected to extend the station’s life through 2030, and NASA is looking ahead to what would replace it. Instead of building a state station, NASA wants to help commercial companies develop their own stations that they could then use.
This month NASA awarded three contracts totaling $ 415.6 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman to begin commercial station development. But it is not clear when these would be ready.
To avoid a gap in the meantime, NASA needs to keep the ISS running. But Russia’s actions complicate it.
The idea of international cooperation had been around for years, but was finally approved in 1993 as part of efforts to strengthen relations with Russia and its President Boris Yeltsin. At the time, the Washington Post reported that the Clinton administration “described the Russian partnership as a historic opportunity to strike swords in plowshares or, literally, to convert the deadly Cold War rockets into peaceful long-range trucks for orbital installation.”
The ISS was “the product of a rather unique moment when the US government tried to change its relationship with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Brian Weeden, director of programming at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank. The station was established “for foreign policy reasons and to let Soviet scientists and engineers work on space instead of selling their services to the highest bidder. It is clear that these conditions have changed. “
Tensions have also been fueled by the fact that NASA no longer has to pay Russia to transport its astronauts to the space station. After NASA shut down the space shuttle in 2011, Russia significantly increased the cost of launching the station to as much as $ 85 million per seat, creating a steady source of income for the troubled space agency.
But it came Elon Musk’s SpaceX. On behalf of NASA, it restored manned spaceflight from US soil for the space agency last year, thereby ending its dependence on Russia. That Weeden said had further destabilized the relationship.
“SpaceX broke that monopoly,” he said. “The US no longer needs Russia to get to the space station, and SpaceX will eat its way into Russia’s commercial space launch business if it is not destroyed. So Russia feels strongly threatened by SpaceX. “
Russia has also agreed to work with China, which has started building its own space station in orbit. But unlike partnering with the United States on the ISS, Russia likely wouldn’t be an equal partner on the Chinese station, officials said.
As for extending the life of the ISS, Weeden said: “Politically, it will be very difficult after the events of the past few years.”
Despite the unrest on the ground, there continues to be a strong collaboration between the astronauts and cosmonauts, engineers and technical leaders that have long put politics aside. “We trust them and work with them every day,” said Pace. American astronauts are learning Russian, and work and live in Russia for a long time. They get to know the culture and respect their colleagues.
The bond through the space program ensures that the two countries share the same interests and work together to keep the astronauts and cosmonauts who live together on the space station alive. Russia recently announced that it would be sending a cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, to fly SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft next year. A NASA astronaut is slated to fly a Russian Soyuz rocket again next year.
In a statement to The Post, Nelson said NASA wanted to continue its partnership with Russia.
“NASA astronauts and Roscosmos cosmonauts have been living and working together on the International Space Station for more than 20 years – a success story that has produced countless discoveries and enabled research that is not possible on Earth,” the statement said. “This is the power of space – uniting nations for the benefit of humanity – and NASA is committed to continuing our very effective ISS partnership.”
Tying the Russians to the station is a good thing for future space relations, said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If anything, Russia leads them [antisatellite missile] Test is another reason to keep her on the ward with us, ”he said. “If they create thousands of debris and threaten the station, I want some of their cosmonauts to take the risk. If not, Russia has even less reason to be a good player in space. “