Russia’s war with Ukraine has created an existential crisis for NASA. Three decades ago, NASA embraced international cooperation as a rationale for the International Space Station (ISS). Now, the same argument that saved the station at the end of the last Cold War may produce its demise at the start of a new one.
For decades, NASA has highlighted the ISS as an exemplar of a productive international partnership, a sign that the U.S. and Russia have moved beyond conflict, and a guide to how rivals can learn to peacefully work together. Its accounts of station operations emphasize how much each side has learned from the other and how they have persevered through disagreements, emergencies, and close calls. NASA photos show happy astronauts and cosmonauts living and working together in close quarters. Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden cheered efforts to nominate the ISS program for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may bring the ISS program to an abrupt end. The problem is not that an extended military conflict will disrupt ISS operations. Rather, with arguments about international cooperation taken off the table, NASA must address a fundamental question it has always struggled to answer: why do we have an Earth-orbiting space station in the first place?
NASA came to international cooperation as an act of desperation. While program managers described the ISS as “the next logical step” after the space shuttle, there were only vague ideas about compelling research programs for the facility. The expectation was that NASA could wait until after the station was built to answer these questions. NASA only named a Utilization Manager for the ISS in 2013, 25 years after the design process began and more than 10 years after the first crews entered the station. Even today, NASA’s summaries of station science emphasize numbers of experiments and hours of crew time rather than the value of discoveries made by astronaut researchers.
In the early 1990s, as rising costs threatened cancellation, NASA proposed to merge the nascent ISS with Russia’s ongoing Mir space station program. Collaboration was attractive to the Clinton administration as a demonstration of closer ties with Russia and a way to keep Russian aerospace engineers building space hardware rather than missiles and nuclear weapons for third-world countries and terrorists. The joint station was more complex and expensive, harder to build and operate, and less useful as a scientific platform. One Russian working for NASA argued, “Putting the two programs together was a political decision. None of the engineers wanted it. It was a bulldog mated to a rhinoceros.” Even so, embracing international cooperation was a good deal, as it secured funding for the ISS and allowed NASA to sidestep questions about the scientific merit of a space station.
The station’s value as a demonstration of international collaboration is in ruins after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its looming confrontation with NATO. It is an open question whether Russia’s aerospace industry can continue sending cosmonauts to the ISS given western sanctions. In the first weeks of the invasion, the head of Russia’s space agency, Dimitri Rogozin, canceled several international space projects, threatened to cut off Russian propulsion systems that currently keep the ISS in orbit, and ended sales of Russian rocket engines to American companies, advising customers to “use broomsticks” to send their satellites into space. Roscosmos also circulated a mashup video reenactment of cosmonauts waving goodbye to their American colleagues as they close hatches, detach the U.S. side of the station, and watch it fall towards the ground.
The ISS is not in immediate danger. Using SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the U.S. can fly crews to the station without Russian help. Modified versions of non-Russian-cargo vehicles can be launched in time to manage the station’s orbit. In truth, closing the hatches between the U.S. and Russian sides of the station would change very little. Advertising the ISS as a thriving international partnership was always an exaggeration. During the early phase of station construction, joint crews lived and worked together in Russian modules, but once the U.S. side was completed in 2011, astronauts transitioned to daily routines that require almost no interaction with Russian hardware or cosmonauts. The U.S. provides some electrical power to the Russians, the Russians send wastewater to U.S. recycling systems, and the two sides collaborate on managing the station’s orbit and attitude, but that is about it.
American and Russian flight controllers have also learned to stay out of each other’s way, as negotiating even the simplest issues often generates protracted conflict. For example, even after a decade of discussion, engineers continued to disagree over the proper response to station depressurization, with Americans arguing for closing hatches and abandoning a leaky module, and Russians wanting to keep hatches open to find and fix the leak. Rather than demonstrating the benefits of partnership, the ISS experience shows how success in joint efforts often requires minimizing opportunities to work together – or, in the case of a depressurization emergency, tacitly allowing station crews to make their own arrangements.
Making this point takes nothing away from the people who have tirelessly worked to build and operate the ISS. In my research, I listened to countless stories of how international ISS teams learned to overcome language, cultural, and technical barriers to build trust and rely on each other. I do not doubt that former astronaut Scott Kelly is completely sincere when he argues that sending world leaders to the ISS would teach them about our shared humanity and interdependence. But in truth, space exploration is not the same as international politics. A generation ago, Americans learned that putting a person on the moon did not guarantee that we could end poverty, preserve the environment, or cure cancer. One of the key lessons of the ISS is that the insights gleaned from a successful partnership in space have limited relevance for engendering peaceful relations among nations.
Regardless of how events in Ukraine play out, NASA is facing the end of its central rationale for the International Space Station. After two decades, the ISS partners have learned a great deal about operating a space station and keeping astronauts healthy. But none of the station’s experiments have produced transformational discoveries, technologies, or products. Commercial ventures to build a successor to the ISS rely on NASA as an anchor tenant and main funder. Without international cooperation, NASA has no clear rationale for spending several billion dollars a year on station operations. Now, NASA faces the same question it avoided two decades ago: what good is a space station? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have taken the debate out of NASA’s control and settled the question once and for all.
William Bianco is a professor of political science and director of the Indiana Political Analytics Workshop at Indiana University-Bloomington. He was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2011-2012 at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he shadowed members of NASA’s Houston support group at Moscow Mission Control and traveled with NASA personnel to Baikonur for the launch of Soyuz TMA-04M. Subsequently, he led an externally-funded international team to study the evolution of ISS joint operations through data analysis and interviews with astronauts, flight controllers, and program managers in Houston, Washington, and Moscow. He has authored or co-authored several works on the politics of international cooperation in space.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.