Commentary | The International Space Station: a Case for Peace

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In January, William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, announced that the White House intends to extend international space station operations from 2020 to 2024 as part of the 2015 budget request to Congress. He also said that NASA has talked to its international partners about this. The issue for everyone is coming up with the necessary funds to support the proposed extension. In Europe, many of the participating countries face financial difficulties and may rather be tempted to consider reducing expenditures for space activities. I am, however, confident that the European Space Agency member states will find a consensus and that the international space station will remain there at least until 2024.

Financial difficulties are by no means a new issue for the ISS. I still remember that 20 years ago, in 1994, when I took over the responsibility for the human spaceflight program at ESA, the European space programs were at a crossroads and Europe’s participation in the ISS in particular was under threat of cancellation. Estimates put the costs of the European Columbus laboratory at more than 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion). It should have been brought in several space shuttle flights to the station. This we had to change, so that Columbus as a whole could be transported by a single flight. 

With a very committed team and within six months we redesigned the program and based it on the Columbus laboratory and the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) as essential elements. The main contractor presented us with a proposal for a Columbus laboratory that was only half as large but still featured exactly the same experimental capacity as before. It could fit in one shuttle flight to the ISS and should cost about half of the original estimate. We were thus able to submit a proposal to the ESA Ministerial Conference in 1995 in Toulouse, France, that contained, in addition to Columbus, the ATV. This proposal was then accepted by the European ministers in charge of space.

Europe’s other partners in the ISS have not been better off. Every few years there was a budget crisis somewhere. While unity gives strength, it may also lead to hesitations and delays. The ISS once even survived by only one vote an attempt to cancel it in the U.S. Congress. Some tragic accidents led to additional doubts and threats. But each time the ISS successfully came out of the tunnel.

It is worth pointing out that the ISS not only made it through many programmatic changes, but also adapted itself to some fundamental reorientations in its very raison d’être. The ISS, like all its forerunner space stations, was a child of the Cold War, but it carried the DNA of human spaceflight from much earlier times. Before engineers even drafted the first plans for Skylab and Salyut, visionary authors of the 19th century had already laid down their ideas about human spaceflight. Together with rocket travel to the Moon, a space station in orbit around Earth was one of the two recurrent themes in the early science fiction novels. But only the Cold War brought these dreams to fruition.

Lunar exploration and space station were closely interwoven ideas. One was the consequence of the other and political and technical developments affected them in reciprocal ways. As a result of the famous Sputnik shock of 1957 and the Space Race between the two superpowers that it triggered, lunar landings took the initial lead over circumterrestrial space stations. When the United States won the Moon race with Apollo, the Soviet Union turned its attention to space stations with the Salyut and Mir programs. Then, when the Apollo program was ended, the United States too turned its attention to low Earth orbit with Skylab and the space shuttle program.

Europeans too were galvanized by Sputnik. Everywhere, space activities developed. Europe quickly realized that national space projects alone would not be the right step to take Europe into space and that Europe could only achieve something meaningful if one could bring together all resources in order to work together. However, human landings on the Moon or a permanent human outpost in low Earth orbit exceeded by far the European capabilities. Both superpowers saw their roles in the respective human Moon and low Earth programs as a way to foster and demonstrate their leadership. Europe could only take, if at all, the role of a junior partner.

So the European countries cooperated among themselves in areas like science and technology, telecommunications, Earth observation, navigation, launch vehicles and human spaceflight, where they could find common interests and build up space programs that were characterized by balanced national leadership, compromise and consensus. At that time, such cooperation was not merely seen as a chance, but also perceived as a burden for Europe; many observers looked with some envy at the United States or the Soviet Union, where things seemed to be that much easier with only one government to decide and one common language spoken among all stakeholders.

Things changed fundamentally in 1990. With the end of the Cold War, the concept of a bipolar world also came to an end. All of a sudden the balance of mutual interests, compromise and consensus became of growing importance in international relations and gradually replaced the former approach of only U.S. and Soviet leadership. The longstanding experience of Europe in cooperative space programs, mainly through the European Space Agency, suddenly turned from a handicap into an asset and a role model. 

After the abandonment of Russian plans for a successor to the Mir station, in 1993 Russia became a major partner of the ISS. The participation of Russia was certainly the factor that stabilized the entire ISS program. Without Russia, the United States probably would have given up Freedom, as the Western space station was then known. But true collaboration on the ISS was only possible as far as consensus could be reached between the sovereign partners. The need to clearly define goals and expectations in the cooperative venture so as to avoid misunderstandings was obvious. Without the profound experience of Europe in mutually beneficial cooperation schemes and its influence on the other ISS partners, the introduction of Russia into the ISS partnership might not have worked so smoothly, if at all. 

Nothing demonstrates better the progress that has been made on the long way from political enemies to reliable and mutually dependent peaceful cooperation partners than the astronaut training concept for the ISS. Since 1998, all European astronaut activities are merged in Cologne, Germany, at the European Astronaut Centre. There, however, not only European astronauts but all the other astronauts on the ISS — Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians — are trained for their tasks with European laboratory equipment. In the opposite way, European astronauts go to Houston, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan, or Montreal to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. This is part of the basic understanding between the international partners that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it.

There is also a somewhat anecdotal example of the progress that has been made thanks to the ISS with regard to Cold War times: The third non-Soviet citizen cosmonaut to fly to a Soviet space station, then Salyut 6 in 1978, was the East German air force officer Sigmund Jaehn. The first non-American astronaut to fly on the U.S. space shuttle, with the ESA Spacelab mission in 1983, was the West German ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold. Coincidentally, at the time of their historical spaceflights, both astronauts had different passports — Jaehn came from the German Democratic Republic, Merbold from the Federal Republic of Germany — but both were born in the same region in the heart of Germany, at places that were only about 30 kilometers apart. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jaehn and Merbold found themselves working in the same space program, first for the Russian space station Mir and then for the international space station.

Ten years later, in 2001, ESA together with the other international partners received a letter from the King of Spain informing them that the ISS was awarded one of the most coveted prizes in the world, the Prince of Asturias Award, the highest prize in Spain, awarded yearly to a select number of personalities in different fields. The ISS won the prize in the category of international cooperation.

After 20 years of successful peaceful cooperation among the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada in this unique undertaking, time has come now to consider the international space station for the highest award in this field on an international level: the Nobel Peace Prize.


Jörg Feustel-Büechl is former head of the ESA Directorate of Human Spaceflight.