The acronym ISS could now stand for “International Success Story” as well as international space station. This may come as a big surprise after years – even decades – of doubt about the fate of this huge and expensive project, which happens to be the largest peacetime international scientific and technical program ever undertaken.
The project was started in 1984 with the initiative of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, asking Canadian, European and Japanese leaders to join the United States in the development of a large orbital research facility, able to dwarf the existing and forthcoming Soviet space stations; the plan was to have the facility in operation by 1992!
The project survived two major accidents of its principal transportation system, the U.S. space shuttle, the end of the Cold War and a fundamental change in the station’s political goal, with Russia joining the international team in 1993. It has been pursued by four American presidents -Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – and many changes of governments in Canada, European Space Agency member states, Japan and Russia.
These persistent efforts are now succeeding. In the past three months the addition to the ISS of new international elements, the European module Columbus, the first element of the Japanese Kibo laboratory and the Canadian Dextre robotic manipulator, have made the ISS a truly international space infrastructure element. The docking April 3 of the large European Autonomous Transfer Vehicle will make the operation of the ISS an even more international endeavor. By next year, the ISS will have an international crew of six rather than three, and research aboard the station can (finally) proceed at full pace.
The international partners must thus be proud of their achievement, and the United States must be applauded for its tough 2005 decision to complete ISS assembly. The ISS may have taken excruciatingly long to build, but when it is completed at the end of 2010 it will be a unique orbital laboratory, one in which physical, chemical and biomedical research in the space environment could be carried out with first-rate scientific equipment from all the partners, unprecedented involvement of a highly competent permanent crew of six astronauts, and significant power and data processing resources.
The (unfortunate) truth is that in spite of more than 35 years of Soviet-Russian space station and U.S.
shuttle/Spacelab/Spacehab activities, research in microgravity has not yet benefited from the proper means to demonstrate its potential value. But with the ISS the time has finally come for a new era in orbital space research.
Is the opening of this new era worth the huge international investment in ISS development and operation? We will not know before the ISS research potential is fully used, which will take several years … and possibly more. Saying that the ISS has not yet demonstrated its scientific value is not at all relevant; one does not expect Earth-bound laboratories to be productive even before they are completed. Good science takes time; new ideas will emerge continuously during the exploitation of the station.
It would be a pity if the ISS as a “national” and “international” laboratory were not fully exploited, which means providing adequate research time and resources, and possibly even evolution of the infrastructure. While Europe, Canada and Japan have comprehensive utilization programs planned and funded, for different reasons it is not at all clear that the United States and Russia will take full advantage of the capabilities the ISS provides.
Let’s be blunt: after nearly a quarter century of development, talking about closing this unique facility by 2016 or even 2020 is almost certainly premature.
The citizens of the international partners who have paid with their taxes for this remarkable and visible facility deserve a full test of whether there will be adequate return on their investment. Innovative thinking must be applied by the international partners to the long-term exploitation and evolution of what is, after all, the first real long-duration international human infrastructure built in space.
This thinking must be applied to new scientific and technical research (fortunately the scientific and engineering communities can be very imaginative), new activities linked to the forthcoming exploration programs (Moon, Mars and beyond) such as preparation of space operational infrastructures (and could not the ISS itself evolve toward a space operation center?), or even new bold private initiatives in space (orbital tourism for instance).
Even though its origins lie in what seems the distant past, considering the ISS as a product of “old thinking” in space activities would be a big mistake. The future of space will depend very much on the ability to build on what has been done before, and on taking advantage of past and present investments. The ISS is a remarkable international achievement. It is the proof that human spaceflight and exploration can be a truly international venture. Starting from it, and not throwing it away in a few years, is certainly the best foundation for implementing a future Global Exploration Strategy.
Making the ISS the initial cornerstone of a system of international infrastructure elements, enabling a sustainable exploration and expansion of humankind in cis-lunar space and beyond during the next decades, will however depend very much on the ability of the partners to face a difficult short-term issue: the logistics of the fully assembled ISS after shuttle retirement at the end of 2010.
The current Russian systems, Progress and Soyuz, are aging and of limited capabilities. The future U.S.
1 system is not really optimized for ISS servicing, and will be expensive; in addition, it may not be available for a number of years after the ISS is fully assembled
. The U.S. Commercial Orbital Transportation System, or COTS, program is very interesting because it addresses the most important issue – cost
– but its outcome is still uncertain in terms of time scale and capabilities.
What could the other partners do? The European ATV and its Japanese counterpart HTV, which is scheduled to start flying in 2009, are valuable additions for cargo transportation; they could be simplified and made less expensive. But what about crew transport? Europe could certainly play a major role here. It has the technical and industrial capability to develop a parallel human transportation system and should remember that its current success in ISS contributions (Columbus) and operation (Ariane 5 and ATV) comes out of decisions taken 21 years ago. Those 1987 decisions also included a human transportation system – Hermes.
Then, under the leadership of the late French space leader Hubert Curien, Europe had a coherent strategy, reconciling the goals of European autonomy in space transportation (Ariane 5/Hermes) and of interdependence in a major international venture (with both an attached module, Columbus, and a free-flying research module as part of what was to become the ISS). Is it not time now for Europe to return to such a coherent scheme, by adding what is lacking from its current human spaceflight strategy, i.e. a crew transportation vehicle launched by Ariane 5, and thus to contribute to a healthy and promising future for the ISS, as a first step towards more ambitious and distant objectives?
Alain Dupas is director of Strategic Studies, College de Polytechnique, Paris; John Logsdon is director of the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.