For more than 20 years, the International Space Station has served not just as an orbiting laboratory for science but as a vehicle for diplomacy, hosting astronauts from 19 different countries who work side-by-side in space when, in some cases, their leaders could not get along on the ground.
The size of a football field and hurtling through space at 17,500 mph, the station has been a symbol of collaboration through wars and turmoil, and is, to many in the space community, worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize to recognize it as “the largest international peacetime endeavor in human history,” as Dylan Taylor, a longtime space entrepreneur, argued in a 2020 blog post.
But the fragile coalition that has kept the space station going all these years is fraying, as tensions between Russia and the United States, the two main partners on the station, grow to levels not seen in years. And while the countries have kept their alliance on the station going despite geopolitical tensions, the fence that has kept the station and civil space endeavors walled off from other problems is beginning to erode.
All of which are complicating efforts to extend the life of the station and keep the partnership going.
The space station “might be a high-water mark for U.S.-Russia relations,” said Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and the executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump administration. “But it’s not invulnerable … If we were to start over today, we would not have the Russians as partners on the station. That was done in another, more hopeful, era.”
Today, Russia and the United States are at odds over several issues, including Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine. The Biden administration has also leveled sanctions on Russian leaders for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics. It also has sanctioned Russia for its interference in U.S. elections as well as punishing Russian companies for supporting Russian hackers.
To make matters worse, Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s first vice chief of space operations, recently told The Post that Russia and China are constantly attacking U.S. satellites a number of ways, including lasers, jammers and cyber breaches.
“The threats are really growing and expanding every single day,” he said. “And it’s really an evolution of activity that’s been happening for a long time.”
The tensions have breached the sanctity of the countries’ civil space efforts, which traditionally have been walled off from military and political skirmishes.
Last month, Russia fired a missile that destroyed one of its dead weather satellites, creating a massive field of more than 1,500 pieces of debris that threatened the space station. After the test, NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts had to huddle in their spacecraft, waiting to see if the station was hit and if they would have to abandon it for home.
The missile strike was roundly condemned by members of the Biden administration.
“By blasting debris across space, this irresponsible act endangered the satellites of other nations, as well as astronauts in the International Space Station,” Vice President Harris, who serves as the chair of the National Space Council, said earlier this month.
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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “reckless and dangerous” and said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.” He added that the attack was an act of the military and that he believed members of the Russian space agency “didn’t know anything about this. And they’re probably just as appalled 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, top NASA officials came to her defense. “We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator of the space operations mission directorate wrote on Twitter. “We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations.”
The tensions will complicate plans to extend the life of the space station, which after more than 20 years in the vacuum of space, is showing signs of age. Congress is expected to extend the life of the station to 2030, and NASA is looking ahead to what would replace it. Instead of building a government-owned and operated station, NASA instead wants to help commercial companies develop stations of their own that it could then use.
This month, NASA awarded three contracts, worth $415.6 million combined, to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman, to begin development of commercial stations. But it’s not clear when those would be ready.
To avoid a gap in the meantime, NASA needs to keep the ISS going. But Russia’s actions are making that complicated.
The idea for international collaboration had been around for years but finally was approved in 1993 as part of an effort to boost ties with Russia and its President Boris Yeltsin. At the time, The Washington Post reported that the Clinton administration “painted the Russian partnership as a historic opportunity to beat swords into plowshares, or more literally to convert the deadly missiles of the Cold War into peaceful long haul trucking for the orbital facility.”
The ISS was “the product of a fairly unique moment in time when the U.S. government was looking to change the relationship it had with Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank. The station was born “for foreign policy reasons and to keep Soviet scientists and engineers working on space instead of selling their services to the highest bidder. It’s clear those conditions have changed.”
The tension also fueled in part by the fact that NASA no longer needs to pay Russia to transport its astronauts to the space station. After NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, Russia significantly jacked up the price for launches to the station, reaching as high as about $85 million a seat and creating a steady revenue stream for the struggling space agency.
But along came Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Under contract from NASA, it has restored human spaceflight from U.S. soil for the space agency last year, ending its dependency on Russia. That Weeden, said, has further destabilized the relationship.
“SpaceX has broken that monopoly,” he said. “The U.S. doesn’t need Russia to get to the space station anymore, And SpaceX is eating into, if not destroying Russia’s commercial space launch business. So Russia feels like it is under quite a bit of threat from SpaceX.”
Russia has also indicated it is willing to partner with China, which has begun to assemble a space station of its own in Earth’s orbit. But unlike the partnership with the United States on the ISS, Russia would likely not be an equal partner on the Chinese station, officials have said.
As for extending the life of the ISS, Weeden said, “politically, that’s going to be very difficult to do after what’s happened over the past several years.”
Despite the turmoil on the ground, there continues to be strong cooperation among the astronauts and cosmonauts engineers and technical leaders, who have long put politics aside. “We trust them and operate day-in, day-out with them,” Pace said. American astronauts study Russian and work and live for long stretches in Russia, coming away with an understanding of the culture and respect for their counterparts.
Remaining bound together through the space program will ensure 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 send a cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, to fly on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft next year. A NASA astronaut is expected to fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket next year as well.
In a statement to The Post, Nelson said NASA wants the partnership with Russia to continue.
“For more than 20 years, NASA astronauts and Roscosmos cosmonauts have lived and worked together on the International Space Station — a success story that has yielded countless discoveries and enabled research not possible on Earth,” the statement said. “That’s the power of space — to unite nations for the benefit of humanity — and NASA is committed to continuing our very effective ISS partnership.”
Having the Russians tied to the station is a good thing for future relations in space, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If anything, Russia conducting the [antisatellite missile] test is more reason to keep them on the station with us,” he said. “If they’re going to be creating thousands of pieces of debris, threatening the station, I’d like to have some of their cosmonauts bearing the risk. If they’re not, then Russia has even less reason to be a good actor in space.”