By Luuk Kuiper
Thanks to the International Space Station (ISS), the earth has not had its entire population present on its surface for 21 years. However, due to the ageing of the station and diminished interest from participating countries, it is uncertain what will happen to the largest ever international scientific cooperation after 2024. This article will explore some history of the station together with recent developments in order to explain the precarious position of the ISS.
The ISS is a habitable artificial satellite, or simply space station, that is in low orbit around Earth. It is the ninth populated station of its kind and was born out of the politics of the Cold War and the space race. After multiple attempts by single nations to maintain a space station, such as Russia’s Mir and the US’ Skylab, where specifically Mir showed great promise. Then, in 1984 NASA under orders of President Reagan set out to create a permanent space presence with the help of other nations. The collaborative aspect arose from the assessment that it was at the time simply not realistic for a single nation to maintain a space program of such a massive scale and costs. After a lot of diplomacy, the ISS intergovernmental agreement was signed in 1998, with the first ISS module being launched later that year. Contributing nations are the US (NASA), Russia (ROSCOSMOS), Canada (CSA), Japan (JAXA – formerly NASDA), and an assortment of European nations (ESA).
The wide assortment of countries contributing technology and astronauts to the ISS is both its biggest strength and weakness: The continuation of the project relies on all countries involved to be willing to continue. There is specifically a big reliance on Russia and the US, as they supply and maintain a very large portion of the technology on the ISS. The ISS is actually formally divided into two sections: the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS). Where the first is maintained and operated by Russia and the latter by the US and other nations.
The US confirmed its dedication to the project under the Obama administration in 2014, extending its commitment until the end of 2024. Russia’s ROSCOSMOS planned to exit the program in 2020, but after further negotiation affirmed to stay invested through 2024 in line with NASA’s commitment. With their exit from the program, they plan to take the ROS with them, wanting to use the modules for their own space station to be launched in 2030. Since the ROS modules function as both the propeller and life-support of the ISS, this detachment could be detrimental to the ISS. NASA does have backup modules with the same functions but it is unclear if they are invested in keeping the ISS functioning without Russia involved. Especially in light of their interest in a manned Moon mission and further Mars missions under the Artemis initiative.
With Russia recently reaffirming their interest in exiting the ISS program in 2025, NASA preoccupied with Artemis, and the increase of malfunctions within the oldest modules (that were originally planned to have a 15-year lifespan), the future of the ISS is uncertain. There have been calls from within the US to privatise the ISS, with the first steps, including a contract for a hotel module, already taken. However, it is still unsure if the private sector would be able to maintain the ISS without support from the US and Russia. Meanwhile, China has launched the first modules of their Tiangong Space Station in early 2021, aiming to finish it by 2022. This all considered, it looks like 2025 might very well be the start of a new space race. How the ISS will fit inside this picture, however, is currently far from clear.