This article was originally published onsuperklynge, a website dedicated to telling humanity's greatest space stories.
On November 2, 2000, astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev arrived at the International Space Station. The moment a permanent human presence in space began.
Over the past two decades, 240 people from 19 countries have stayed at the world's leading orbital laboratory. The station is a prime example of space-age cosmopolitanism, but this enduring international collaboration was hard-won.
The ISS was shaped by Cold War politics and the tough decisions made by statesmen, soldiers and NASA officials when astronauts were still bouncing around the moon. The geopolitical tensions from the last century are rooted in the station's architecture, which is probably best described as two stations joined at the hip – one Russian and one American. Yet the station is more than a technical marvel; It is a triumph of diplomacy and an unprecedented experiment in the use of science and technology as tools of soft power.
NASA has always wanted a space station, ever since they started sending people into space in the late 1950s. But it wasn't until there were boot prints on the moon that the idea was really taken seriously. The original plan was to launch a 100-person station called the Space Base into low Earth orbit. However, it quickly became clear that the cost of using disposable rockets to transport people and supplies into orbit would dwarf the cost of building the station itself. If NASA wanted an orbital outpost, they had to build a reusable spacecraft.
NASA suspended its shuttle program in the early 1970s, and from the start considered international contributors. This was a major departure from the Apollo program, which was characterized by its deeply nationalistic motivation. Putting a man on the moon was primarily about demonstrating American superiority over the Soviet Union. But after Armstrong took that small step, there was a major shift in official space program policy.
The United States recognized that promoting international cooperation in space was the most effective way to maintain American supremacy on the final frontier—and on Earth.
This tension between prioritizing American interests and promoting internationalism was evident from the early days of the Shuttle program. NASA initially invited Canada, Europe and Japan to participate, although Japan thought too long and eventually missed the opportunity. But despite the international enthusiasm for the project, NASA had no intention of all countries being equal participants. The Space Shuttle was an American spacecraft designed primarily to serve American interests. This understandably created some tension on the project, especially between the US and Europe. When NASA first invited European countries to collaborate on the space shuttle, they spent years - and tens of millions of dollars - figuring out how best to contribute. There were three main options: Europe could build a tug that could pick up payloads from the shuttle and put them into proper orbit; it could build certain components of the shuttle, such as the shaft doors; or it could build a laboratory module that would fly in the Shuttle Bay.
Europe eventually decided it would contribute a tug, but NASA wouldn't allow it. The agency was not thrilled that it had to rely on other countries for a key shuttle component, especially since the spacecraft sometimes flew sensitive national security missions.
Instead, NASA commissioned Europa to build Spacelab, a laboratory module that could fit into the space shuttle's payload bay. It was not what Europe wanted to build, but the proposal finally went through - and only after some tough negotiations. France was particularly opposed to the idea of building the Spacelab. She preferred Europe to keep its own space capabilities, and building the Spacelab would mean it would not have enough money to invest in ambitious European space projects. It was only after the other member states had agreed to let France develop the Ariane rocket that they joined the American shuttle project.
When the space shuttle first flew in 1981, NASA was keen to use it to build a space station. In 1982, it commissioned eight major aerospace companies to develop concepts for stations that would ultimately be included in the agency's final design. That same year, NASA established a Space Station Task Force to determine whether international cooperation on the space station was possible—or even desirable.
The question is more complicated than it sounds. NASA was not alone in wanting a permanent base in low Earth orbit. The US Department of Defense had also pursued a station of its own for years, and the Reagan administration's support for the ISS was conditioned on its use as a platform to promote extraterrestrial commerce. This meant that NASA's space station had to balance the needs of academia, industry, and defense, which tended to have very different attitudes toward international cooperation.
The Department of Defense was particularly resistant to the idea that outsiders would have to tinker around with American hardware or rely on the reliability of foreign components. "The Department of Defense has stalled negotiations on the space station and is trying to torpedo it," said John Logsdon, a space historian at George Washington University. "The Department of Defense wanted a facility that was only in the United States." The primary concern for the military—and the companies that would become the primary users of the space station—was technology transfer. As people from all these different countries exchanged data during the construction of the ISS, it seemed inevitable that some of America's valuable or secret technical knowledge would be shared with its partners.
NASA, on the other hand, was concerned about how other countries would react to US defense payloads flown on the station. They probably wouldn't be keen on the idea of contributing to a project designed to strengthen America's military power. "On the one hand, NASA had to meet the demands of its international partners, and on the other hand, it had to create conditions that were acceptable to the national security community," says Logsdon.
As NASA wrestled with questions of international cooperation, pressure for a space station gathered pace at the highest levels of government. In 1984, US President Ronald Reagan officially announced the United States' intention to build a space station in his State of the Union address. To the surprise of many, he also invited America's allies to participate in the program. At this point, NASA had not yet figured out how to do this without completely angering the Department of Defense or potential commercial users, let alone the international collaborators themselves.
Some countries in ESA still felt a little irritated by the way NASA had handled international cooperation on the space shuttle. As Logsdon tellsIn Orbit Together: The Origins of International Participation in the Space StationSome members of the European space community called the space shuttle cooperation with the United States a "stupid" mistake, as it undermines Europe's ability to independently develop its own comparable technologies.
NASA was well aware of this remaining dissatisfaction, and the agency's leadership was determined to do things differently with the space station. This time they have involved their international partners - Europe, Japan and Canada - from the earliest stages of planning. Although NASA would continue to lead the space station program, its partners would influence development from the start to ensure that the station met everyone's needs and capabilities.
The problem of technology transfer—and the question of military payload—would be solved by the design of the station itself. Because the station was modular, it meant that each country could build its part of the station and limit the amount of data it shared with partners. The interfaces between the modules would be "clean", meaning they would not contain any sensitive components.
In short, international politics ultimately influenced the design of the space station on a technical level.
In 1987, the space station had a name -Freedom— and the United States formally signed agreements with Europe, Japan and Canada to develop the encircling outpost a year later. But the agreement turned out to be too early. Ever since Reagan announced the space station in 1984, NASA has struggled to agree on a design that was both practical and affordable.
The space station plans underwent major redesigns seven times between 1984 and 1993. The first components of the station were due to fly into space that year, but by then NASA had already spent $9 billion designing a station that it hadn't even started building yet. Congress had had enough of what many of its members saw as an extravagant and wasteful project. That same year, the entire space station program was defeated by a single vote in the US House of Representatives. Something obviously had to change.
A few months after the fateful vote, the Clinton administration scrapped plans for a space stationFreedom. Instead, NASA would build an "international space station." Above all, this was a way for the US to keep its space station without breaking the bank. But it was also influenced by an invitation to cooperate from an unusual new partner: Russia. "A faxed letter from the two heads of Russia's space program came more or less out of the blue proposing a merger of the RussianMir-2and space stationFreedomLogsdon says. "And after a few months of debate, the White House concludes that it is a good idea to invite Russia to join this station."
Space had already proven to be an effective diplomatic tool in US-Soviet relations. the infamous"handshake in the roomThe 1975 conflict between NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts is widely regarded as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Although the threat of Soviet dominance in space was cited as one of the Reagan administration's justifications for the space stationFreedomAt the time the Clinton administration announced the International Space Station, relations between the United States and Russia had been thawing for years. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and when Russia proposed merging space stations, the United States saw an opportunity to set the post-Cold War world on the right track.
In 1993, the United States and Russia held the first of a series of high-level meetings to discuss cooperation on the International Space Station. As a stepping stone to the space station, the United States and Russia conducted a series of joint shuttle missionsMir. Das Shuttle-MirThe program ended in 1998, and the same year the 15 partner nations of the International Space Station formally agreed to a memorandum outlining their contributions and responsibilities to the ISS. Although NASA would continue to lead the development of the station, Russia would be the de facto surrogate. It would provide a habitation module, a laboratory module, some Soyuz rescue boats to rescue the station's crew in case of an emergency, and a propulsion module to keep the station in a stable orbit.
The first part of the space station, a Russian cargo module, was launched a few months later on a Russian proton rocket. Almost exactly two years later, the new International Space Station would receive its first residents - two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut. Since then, it has hosted a rotating cast of people from all over the world.
The ISS was officially completed in 2011. Often portrayed as a model of international cooperation and harmony, it has yet to completely shed the political baggage that produced it. In a way, the ISS consists of two different space stations: one Russian and the other American. Almost everything you hear and see about the space station comes from the American side of the station, which includes the European and Japanese modules. it is relativeIt's rare to get a look behind the sceneson the Russian side.
This is an artifact of technology transfer concerns and makes the ISS seem more like a truce than a partnership. Astronauts and cosmonauts may (so far) fly to the station on the same rockets and dine together at the same table, but as far as the countries themselves are concerned, this friendship has well-defined limits. Indeed, the very existence of the ISS depended on these limits of cooperation being made clear to all countries involved. And despite the soft gap, neither space station could exist without the other. "The reality is that the system we have has become interdependent," says Logsdon.
The ISS will likely go down in history as the first – and last – space station of its kind. A global resurgence of nationalism combined with the commercialization of low Earth orbit almost guarantees that future space stations will look more like landscaped gardens than international commons. China is developing its own space station, and several American companies have already begun supplying the hardware for the first private space stations in orbit. But the ISS will always serve as a reminder that international cooperation in space benefits the entire speciesIspossible, however improbable it may sometimes seem from the ground.
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