Three Down, Two to Go

Canada’s pledge to participate in the International Space Station for four more years, to 2024, is a welcome development that hopefully will encourage Europe and Japan to follow suit.

With its April 21 announcement, Canada becomes the first of the original space station partners to join the United States in committing to an extended mission. Russia, a relative latecomer but an indispensable station partner, said in February that it would stick around for four more years.

That leaves the European and Japanese space agencies, both charter members of the partnership, as the holdouts. Neither seems in a hurry to commit — the cash-strapped Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is seeking to reduce the cost of its participation, while the European Space Agency, which has financial issues of its own, must negotiate the different agendas of its participating members.

To put Canada’s decision into perspective, the Canadian Space Agency is responsible for just 2.3 percent of the common operating costs of the U.S.-led segment of the station. JAXA and ESA are responsible for 12.8 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively, with NASA covering the remainder.

Russia pays for its own space station segments and says it intends to continue adding modules in the coming years, notwithstanding its stated intent to pull out come 2024.

ESA and JAXA surely recognize that when it comes to human spaceflight, the space station is the only game there is. Having invested as much as they have over the years in the station, they also likely understand what a pity it would be to leave in 2020, after what by then will still have been a fairly short period of full scientific utilization of the facility.

Domestic budgets and priorities ultimately will drive the forthcoming European and Japanese decisions, but Canada’s announcement certainly won’t hurt the cause.