Wendy Whitman Cobb, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies
On November 2, 2020, the International Space Station celebrated its 20th anniversary of continued human occupation. With astronauts and cosmonauts from all over the world working together, the ISS has demonstrated humanity’s ability not only to live and work in space, but also to cooperate with each other. This extraordinary achievement is significant as countries and companies around the world seek to expand space exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.
The path to this anniversary was not an easy one; like most things done in space, the cost and difficulty were high. Supported by the Reagan administration as part of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the ISS began life in the 1980s. Following the Challenger disaster in 1986, planning fell into oblivion as costs rose. Faced with delays and cost overruns, the space station – then known as Libertà – was nearly canceled by the House of Representatives in the early 1990s. While already bringing international partners on board to lower costs, the Clinton administration has invited Russia to participate, leveraging the station as a foreign policy tool between former adversaries.
That As a space policy expert, I argue that the achievements of the ISS to date are truly significant, but they also point the way forward for cooperation and commercialization in space.
Achievements and meaning
By the numbers, the International Space Station is truly impressive. At 357 feet in length, it’s only three feet less than an American football field. More than 241 people from 19 countries visited and at least 3,000 research projects took place on the ISS. The ISS is the third brightest object in the night sky and can often be spotted around the world. Lego also immortalized the station with its own construction set.
The ISS has shown that humans can live and work in space. These experiences are critical as countries look to long-term exploration. The ISS has led to advances in understanding how the human body reacts to sustained microgravity and increased radiation exposure. Other experiments allowed researchers to study materials and chemicals in a microgravity environment. The astronauts also learned how to grow food on the station, leading to insights into how plants grow on Earth.
These results did not come without criticism. Construction cost more than $ 100 billion; some have questioned the quantity and value of the science that has been conducted. More recently, limits on the number of crew members residing on the station have reduced the amount of time available for scientific experiments.
However, perhaps one of the most significant legacies of the ISS is the long-term cooperation that made it possible. While the United States and Russia are the countries most closely identified with the program, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency also participate. While it is not always easy, the cooperation sustained in a place where operations are difficult and expensive is impressive.
For the United States and Russia in particular, this result is unique. Although there was some cooperation between the two during the Cold War, the ISS is the first major space program the two have worked together on. Although relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated in recent years, the partnership on the ISS has continued. While science and space cooperation does not solve all terrestrial issues, it can strengthen other diplomatic relations.
The future of the ISS
While turning 20 may not seem like a milestone, for a complicated machinery operating in the dangerous environment of space, the ISS is approaching old age. In recent years it has suffered several problems, most recently an air leak in the Russian Zvezda module. However, recent assessments support the continued operation of the ISS for at least another 10 years.
During that time, the ISS will likely see an increase in commercial activity. Recently, cosmetics company Estee Lauder launched one of its products at the station to be featured in a commercial filmed there. SpaceX is looking to make the ISS a tourist destination following NASA’s 2019 decision making it easier for space tourists to visit. Another space company, Axiom, recently received a contract to build a commercial module to be added to the ISS in 2024. The module would provide additional living and working space for astronauts aboard the station and serve as a starting point for a commercial future. Space station.
Thinking beyond Earth’s orbit, international cooperation in the ISS provides a solid example for future cooperation in space. As NASA seeks to return to the moon, international cooperation will be a way to reduce costs, normalize behavior in space, and increase national prestige. NASA has made efforts in these areas through the Artemis Agreements, an agreement that outlines norms and behaviors for lunar exploration. Additionally, NASA is collaborating with the European Space Agency and others on its plans for the Gateway, a mini-space station in lunar orbit. The experience of the ISS has been instrumental in all of these developments as it continues to launch the next generation of space activities.
Wendy Whitman Cobb, Professor of Strategy and Security Studies, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies
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