Mary Grace Nimmer
On July 15, 1975, the world witnessed the success of the first international space partnership, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and a handshake in space between a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut has been called the beginning of the end of the Cold War. For nearly 50 years, international cooperation in space exploration has been a beacon of hope and a symbol for peace. But following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, this cooperation has begun to decline and the future of these longstanding partnerships is in question.
The concept of The International Space Station was developed against the backdrop of Cold War politics. In the 1970s, the United States shifted its space exploration focus from the inherently nationalistic Apollo program to the Space Shuttle program, from the beginning inviting international partners—Europe, Canada, and Japan—to contribute. In 1982, following a successful Shuttle launch, plans for a space station began to unfold and NASA established a Space Station Task Force to encourage international cooperation on the project. In his 1984 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan announced intentions to build a space station, Freedom, and invited the United States’ allies as partners.
Years later, after many redesigns, billions of dollars in spending, and cooling tensions with Russia, President Bill Clinton announced that the Freedom project was canceled. Instead, NASA would begin work on The International Space Station. This decision was notably influenced by an unlikely invitation from the two heads of the Russian Federal Space Program, Roscosmos, suggesting the merger of Mir-2, a Soviet-era space station project, and Freedom. Only two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States saw this partnership not only as a way to contain the ever-growing space station budget, but as an opportunity to set a progressive tone for the post-Cold War world.
The first piece of the space station was a Russian cargo module delivered via a Russian Proton Rocket. Two years later, on November 2, 2000, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut boarded the space station. This was the beginning of a continuous human presence in space, supported by more than 250 astronauts from 20 countries, now going on its twenty-third year.
In 2011, the construction of The International Space Station was completed. From an engineering perspective, international politics played a key role in the design of the space station. Due to concerns regarding national security, the space station has two modules, one Russian and one American; the American side includes European and Japanese laboratories, and a peek into the Russian side is rare. Although the Russian and US sides of the space station are interdependent, it is clear that politics on Earth have set well defined boundaries for friendship in space.
Nevertheless, for nearly five decades, the space station has been a solace from the geopolitical tensions 250 miles below and a symbol of what is possible when countries come together for a common goal. In the weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, a series of sanctions and threats have called the future of international space partnership with Russia into question.
Within the first weeks of the war, conflict on the ground had already made its way to space. The U.S. stated that sanctions on Russia would weaken the Russian space program. Partners of Roscosmos began to withdraw cooperation; Germany turned off its black-hole hunting telescope that is mounted on a Russian satellite and the UK canceled the launch of 36 OneWeb satellites upon a Russian Soyuz rocket, eventually partnering with SpaceX instead. The U.K's Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss also announced a ban on space-related exports to Russia alongside other aviation-related sanctions. Space-related technologies have also been used on the periphery of the war. Images of Earth from Maxar Technologies’ WorldView satellites have been used to assess the damage inflicted by Russia on Kyiv, Mariupol, and at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, as well as elsewhere in the country. SpaceX delivered StarLink internet terminals and alternative charging equipment to Ukraine to restore connectivity and communication. And a Canadian space company, MDA Corp., promised satellite imagery to Ukraine to aid in its defense against Russia.
In response to such sanctions, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, took to Twitter in early March making threats about the future of the space station: leaving behind NASA astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, who was scheduled to return to earth along with two cosmonauts on a Soyuz spacecraft, and detaching the Russian segment of the space station. Rogozin and Scott Kelly, former NASA astronaut and space station commander, exchanged heated jabs on Twitter, headlining the news with questions about the future of the Russian-American partnership. Several of the threatening Tweets and videos from Rogozin have since been deleted, and, following letters from NASA sent to former astronauts asking them to refrain from comments or actions that may endanger the US-Russian space partnership, Kelly announced that he would back down on Twitter.
On March 18, there was yet another notable event in the timeline of Russian space relations. Three cosmonauts, donning brightly colored yellow flight suits with blue trim, resembling the colors of the Ukrainian flag, docked at the ISS, joining the seven crew members already on board. Many took notice; Scott Kelly tweeted in both Russian and English, "Three Russian cosmonauts who just docked with the ISS arrive in Ukrainian yellow!" Whether the color of the flight suits was a political statement or simply a coincidence is still uncertain. In the days that followed, Russia dismissed the notion that the choice of flight suit was in support of Ukraine, claiming, rather, that the colors were chosen for the cosmonauts’ shared alma mater, Bauman Moscow State Technical University.
Despite earlier threats from Dmitry Rogozin, on March 30, 2022, Mark Vande Hei made a successful return to Earth aboard a Soyuz spacecraft and NASA and Roscosmos reaffirmed that they would continue a diplomatic relationship despite the ongoing war. Rogozin, however, has continued to Tweet threats regarding Russia’s partnership on the space station unless international sanctions against Russia are lifted.
The International Space Station was the first—and is likely the last—endeavor of its kind. The expansion of new national space programs, such as China’s Tiangong space station, and the commercialization of low-Earth orbit are bringing about a new era, one that strays from the foundation of global partnership on which The International Space Station was built during the first decades of human space exploration. Nonetheless, the space station serves as an important reminder of the achievement that is possible through cooperation in space and on Earth. The strain placed upon this partnership by the Russian invasion of Ukraine leaves the future of The International Space Station, and the advancement of space exploration as a whole,in jeopardy.