The International Space Station at 20 offers hope and a template for future cooperation

A STS-134 crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour took this photo of the ISS after the station and shuttle began their separation.
Credit: NASA

On Nov. 2, 2020, the International Space Station celebrated its 20th anniversary of continuous human occupation. With astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world working together, the ISS has demonstrated humankind’s ability to not only live and work in space but cooperate with one another. This remarkable achievement is significant as countries and companies around the world look to expand space exploration beyond Earth orbit.

The path to this anniversary was not easy; like most things done in space, the cost and the difficulty were high. Supported by the Reagan administration as part of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the ISS began its life in the 1980s. Following the Challenger disaster in 1986, planning fell by the wayside as costs increased. Facing delays and cost overruns, the space —then known as Freedom—was nearly canceled by the House of Representatives in the early 1990s. While already bringing international partners aboard to lower costs, the Clinton administration invited Russia to participate, leveraging the station as a tool of foreign policy between former adversaries.

What began as competition has turned into fruitful cooperation not just between Russia and the United States but Canada, Japan, Italy, the European Space Agency and over 100 other countries. As a space policy expert, I argue that the achievements of the ISS to date are indeed significant, but they also point the way ahead for cooperation and commercialization in space.

Accomplishments and significance

By the numbers, the International Space Station is indeed impressive. At 357 feet in length, it is just one yard shy of an American football field. More than 241 individuals from 19 countries have visited, and at least 3,000 research projects have taken place on the ISS. The ISS is the third brightest object in the night sky and can often be spotted worldwide. Even Lego has immortalized the station with its own building set.

The ISS has proven that humans can live and work in space. These experiences are key as countries look to longer term exploration. The ISS has led to advances in understanding how the human body reacts to sustained microgravity and increased exposure to radiation. Other experiments have allowed researchers to study materials and chemicals in a microgravity environment. Astronauts have also learned how to grow food on the station, leading to insights on how plants grow on Earth.

These accomplishments have not come without criticism. It cost more than US$100 billion to construct; some have questionedthe amount and value of the science that has been conducted. More recently, limits on the the number of crew residing on the station have reduced the amount of time available for scientific experiments.

However, perhaps one of the most significant legacies of the ISS is the long-term cooperation that has enabled it. While the U.S. and Russia are the countries most closely identified with the program, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency also take part. While not always easy, sustained cooperation in a place where operations are difficult and costly is impressive.

For the U.S. and Russia in particular, this achievement is unique. While there was some cooperation between the two during the Cold War, the ISS is the first major space program in which the two have worked together. Even as relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated over the past several years, the partnership on the ISS has continued. While scientific and space cooperation does not solve all terrestrial issues, it can strengthen other diplomatic relationships.

The future of the ISS

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