Orbiting the Earth since 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) is a multilateral project involving five space agencies around the world.
He conducted thousands of experiments and helped the superpowers keep the corridors of communication open, even when relations on Earth were freezing.
However, it is unclear whether the ISS will even reach NASA’s proposed end-of-life date of 2031.
Key partners are threatening to pull out in the face of mounting tensions and costs at a time when the ISS is needed more than ever.
So why won’t we see another space station built internationally on this scale, and what does the disappearance of the ISS tell us about the rise of conflict in space?
The origins of the ISS
The world’s first space station, Salyut 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1971. The United States followed suit in 1973 with its manned Skylab.
However, decades of Cold War and space antics ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in 1991 former rivals reunited to work on the ISS.
Dr. Mariel Borowitz, an expert on space policy issues and an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says building and deepening international relationships was probably the most important goal of the ISS.
She says one of the main reasons for the ISS was “to work with allies on a large, highly visible, scientifically and technically advanced project, but also to engage with Russia specifically on this kind of peaceful cooperation.”
Borowitz points out that this international cooperation has also been accompanied by scientific benefits and advances in technology and human exploration capabilities in space.
The project has also reduced costs for participating nations by pooling their resources.
Dr Dimitrios Stroikos, head of the LSE IDEAS space policy project and editor of Space Policy, points to another strategic reason for Russia’s inclusion in the ISS project.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he believes it was a way for Americans to keep Russian scientists and engineers engaged and prevent the sharing of sensitive technology with rival states.
Rising costs and different goals
Considering its scientific advantages and impetus to international cooperation; why are we talking about the end of the ISS?
One of the main reasons is the increase in costs and the change in strategic objectives, which are very different today from the creation of the ISS.
The ISS alone costs NASA about 3.8 billion euros ($4 billion) a year to operate, with the European Space Agency (ESA) setting the price for the development and operation of the ISS. ISS over ten years at 100 billion euros.
Unfortunately for countries participating in the program, the station is aging rapidly, further increasing operating costs.
Although the ISS withdrawal date has been extended before, in recent years the ISS has suffered from air leaks, software crashes and fire alarms.
Rising maintenance costs for the ISS come as countries look to new projects, such as NASA’s Artemis program tasked with returning humans to the Moon or sending rockets to Mars.
The commercialization of space and NASA’s increasing reliance on private companies have also made a new intergovernmental ISS unlikely.
As part of its Commercial LEO Destinations project, NASA will commit nearly 500 million euros to private companies developing private space stations.
A more armed and contested space
However, another reason for the demise of the ISS is that space is fundamentally more contested and increasingly militarized by competing powers.
Growing tensions and geopolitical struggles on Earth are spilling over into space as well.
As the United States outsources its space station capabilities to private partners, rising powers are determined to develop their own space stations.
China, which since 2011 has been excluded from projects involving NASA due to the Wolf Amendment, is building its own Tiangong space station. The station is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions, Russia also confirmed its intention to leave the ISS program by 2024 to pursue its own space station which it said would be open to cooperation. with “friendly countries”.
In September, newly appointed Russian space chief Yuri Borisov called the ISS “unsafe” and unfit for use.
“Technically, the ISS has exceeded all of its warranty periods,” he said. “An avalanche-like process of equipment failure begins, cracks appear.”
Chinese space efforts have also prompted other space powers, such as India, to accelerate their own national space station projects.
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Director of CSST and former Deputy Director of India’s Security Council Secretariat, says there is no doubt that space is becoming increasingly contested.
However, she also says that this heightened controversy has led to new partnerships and developments that would have been difficult to predict a decade ago.
“This competition also stimulates a certain cooperation, which otherwise might not have been seen, for example, the quad countries [America, Australia, India, and Japan] talk about space competition,” Rajagopalan said.
An example is India’s increased cooperation with Japan, the United States and Australia and its leading role in discussions on standards, rules and regulations in space.
“We are perhaps seeing the emergence of two camps, one led by the United States and the other led by China and Russia, sort of spheres of influence in a space characterized by competition” , added Stroikos.
He adds that unlike the Cold War, today the major space powers don’t talk to each other and that’s quite problematic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that conflict in space is inevitable.
Bigger problems to solve in space
While the demise of the ISS is one of the most visible signs that we’re entering a different era of space politics, Stroikos says we shouldn’t let it distract us from bigger issues.
“My main concern is how higher tensions will further increase mistrust between major space powers, at a time when cooperation is urgently needed to address global space challenges, such as space debris, and establish standards of responsible behavior,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether attempts to resolve tensions and space policy issues will succeed or whether, like the ISS, they will crash back to Earth.
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