Letter | Forced ISS Cooperation: A Feature, Not a Bug

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Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin ignited a firestorm of speculation after he announced that Russia would no longer consider extending international space station operations beyond 2020, seemingly as retaliation for recent U.S.-led sanctions on him and other members of the Kremlin [“U.S. Sanctions, Russian Response Fraying Once-strong Space Ties,” May 19, page 1]. 

These statements (and the related ban on RD-180s) were irresponsible and provocative, but we must recognize that, despite this, the near-term operational relationship of the ISS between Russia and the U.S. remains unchanged. Both countries’ human spaceflight programs depend on the ISS, and as long as those programs remain national priorities, the ISS relationship must continue in the near-term, even in the context of increased political tension. This can be deeply frustrating, but as software developers would say: This is a feature of the ISS, not a bug.

The ISS is a physical manifestation of the increasing trend of national interdependency usually referred to as globalization, though that tends to limit the concept to economic terms. Globalization has the benefit of creating widespread shared interest over common projects, limiting the ability of individual nations to pursue extreme global — or even internal — politics without suffering some sort of consequence. The more shared ventures countries have with one another, the more difficult it is to let rapidly escalating rhetoric drive hasty decisions. Space exploration has provided a unique medium in which to create these close partnerships.

The large mutual investment in the ISS provides leverage to both the U.S. and Russia (and, of course, the other international partners). Assuming that individual nations want to preserve their investments and their human spaceflight programs, the continued operation of the ISS is nonnegotiable while no alternatives exist. And at the moment they don’t. 

Rogozin’s comments show this to be the case. Six years is a long time horizon for a punitive action to occur. At least one U.S. presidential administration will have cycled through. NASA will have independent human launch capability. But more importantly, we will have had years to engage on the issue of ISS extension — and the politics of the day will be very different from now.

Rhetoric is easy; actions are hard. Rogozin’s statements were full of rhetoric but notably lacking in immediate action. The Obama administration has similarly exempted the ISS from its punitive actions against Russia. Much uncertainty has been created, but little fallout has actually occurred thanks to this mutual self-interest in space.

I don’t know if Russia will follow through with the threat to disinvest in the ISS after 2020. I do know that, for now, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and NASA (and by extension Russia and the U.S.) are compelled by common cause to work together to maintain their human spaceflight programs. Long touted but seldom truly appreciated, we are now seeing the benefits of collaboration between former rivals in space. And that is, undeniably, a good thing.

 

Casey Dreier

Pasadena, California