The most expensive human construction in history - this is how ambitiously the International Space Station is described. And what sounds even more driving is that ISS is a symbol of cooperation in space as it is not owned by one nation but by Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan, and Canada.
The International Space Station (ISS) is the world's most extraordinary peaceful, cooperative initiative ever planned and implemented by human beings. Since the space age began in 1957, it has been the most politically complicated space program. The ISS program began in 1982, with spacecraft assembly starting in 1998.
“Ideally, the ISS program will just be one more incremental step on an expanding, incredible journal of exploration and understanding, taking us higher and farther.” - Ron Garan
And since then, the ISS has improved drastically. Over the years, space stations became the landmark of our vision about how nations can become one when they strive for the grand goal of exploring the universe. At the same time, space stations have expanded our knowledge of biology, physics, astronomy, and engineering. Space stations aren't just interesting from a scientific standpoint. They, like many other parts of society, are the subject of intense power competition, social interactions, and cooperation.
The International Space Station (ISS) took 12 years to build with support from 16 nations and has been populated continuously since November 2000. Over its lifespan, more than 2,400 experiments have been conducted by more than 230 visitors from 18 countries. The station's crew has logged over 1,300 extravehicular activity (EVA) hours on more than 217 spacewalks.
People have witnessed constant technological advancements, which are just the consequence of space access and research. Companies are employing microgravity at the edge of the human frontier to solve challenges here on Earth, and the ISS is the prime space R&D facility. With a trillion-dollar space economy on the horizon, the ISS has the potential to be a game-changer in the industry's development.
The International Space Station was planned in the early 1980s, long before the Cold War ended. The initiative was built on international cooperation, particularly among like-minded countries, although the United States would lead it. Its name, Space Station Freedom, emphasized the station's pro-democratic (or anti-Soviet) nature. It was meant to be a weapon in the intellectual war against Communism, demonstrating Capitalism's technological superiority.
Only after the Cold War, the idea of the ISS finally came to life. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in a period of global unipolarity, allowing the United States to dominate international politics. The Intergovernmental Accord (IGA), the ISS's legally enforceable regulatory agreement, attests to this supremacy. Even though it was a shared initiative, there was a clear leader, with the United States leading the way in science and technology.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, there was turbulence in the ISS project. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have cast doubt on future collaboration. For example, the Russian leadership has indicated that they are considering discontinuing cooperation with the United States (Reuters, 2021).
That said, it is crucial to understand that space stations influence international politics, and on the contrary, stations are also influenced by international politics. For example, Beijing had tried for years to join the space station but had been unsuccessful. For some time, NASA has had an exclusionary attitude against China, citing concerns over technology transfer. This suggests that the strategy could be motivated by other factors, such as preventing participation from conferring prestige or preserving American dominance by refusing to yield to a developing superpower.
The International Space Station was established during US worldwide political dominance, bringing together old allies and past foes under its command. When Russia's geopolitical interests became a factor, the program's stability deteriorated, souring the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Furthermore, the rise of China and other countries ushered in a shift in the balance of power, which was mirrored in space by China's lofty goals for its space program.
For more than two decades, the International Space Station has been a focal point in international politics, watching numerous events and changes on Earth, particularly in the political realm. With Russia's growing reluctance to continue the program and increasing technical challenges in recent years, the station's future remains uncertain. It was and continues to be a symbol of space collaboration, developed during worldwide post-Cold War optimism.
Learn about the recent developments around ISS during the International Space Convention 2023!