Future Space Efforts Don't Have to Look Like the Past

Image: Spacewalk
NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson stands out at the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm during a 2005 spacewalk.NASA file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Experience teaches us that even some marriages "made in heaven" can fail. But can a marriage made in the heavens, in outer space, also fail?

The two-decade-long space partnership between the United States and Russia has produced a spectacular offspring, the International Space Station. As the planet's toehold at the edge of the rest of the universe, it has sprung from a kludge of American and Russian space hardware, supplemented by talented partners in Europe, Japan and Canada.

More than just a mechanical contrivance, the facility has served as a symbol of what can be achieved by peaceful cooperation rather than competition among nations. It has even been talked up as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

So strong is its symbolism that some believe all future big space projects must be international, and that interplanetary exploration ought to be an endeavor of the planet as a whole. Astronaut veterans in particular, from Apollo-Soyuz to shuttle-Mir to ISS, take pride in describing how their achievements contributed to world peace.

But worsening diplomatic relations with an increasingly nationalistic Russia have now raised anxieties that the partnership, however operationally robust it might be in its mutual co-dependence, is under threat.

Logic dictates that the current arrangement is a good-enough deal for all the players. Engineering realities dictate that no single partner can go it alone with the space station as currently built.

Nevertheless, there's spreading anxiety that the countries involved won't listen to reason — that they'll take steps that unintentionally spark negative responses and ultimately break the partnership. Stepping back and taking the long view, what can be done about this? Can this marriage be saved, and at what cost? More to the point: So what?

What really shapes space policy?

The shifting Washington-Moscow interplay has dominated world events since the middle of the last century, and international relations — in space as well as on the ground — has reflected that driving force. Far from being a shaper of those forces, space policy has always been a far-downstream reflection of them.

Space projects over the decades were fundamentally shaped by these diplomatic realities, and had to adapt to changing conditions or die. The "Space Race" of the 1960s was a rational response to the world competition over whose technology would dominate the future, and its resolution even seems to have influenced which system ended up surviving. Then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, for reasons that were prudent at the time, Russia was brought into pre-existing Western space projects.

American astronaut Thomas Stafford (left) and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov greet each other after opening the hatches between their Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft in 1975. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project marked the world's first international space mission.NASA

For some observers, the Space Race was a golden era of unlimited budgets — an era that sparks nostalgia, and yearning for a revival. For other observers, the more recent Space Partnership became a new golden era that needed to be preserved eternally because of its beneficial cultural inspiration.

Both these points of view overlook the reality that the eras were just sequential phases in a continuing evolution of space policy, adapted to the diplomatic environment of the time. The resulting strategies — competition vs. cooperation — were not themselves the goals, but were merely tactics to attain higher national goals.

Tomorrow will be different

The realities behind international relations as well as space technologies are continuing to evolve. As a result, space strategies must also evolve, or suffocate from efforts to preserve old policies in amber. Far from being the forerunner of a succession of major international space partnerships, the space station may be the last. The factors that made its mode of construction logical at the time may not apply to future projects.

Among the many technological shifts are cheaper access to space, better robotics, and fuller assessments of the environments of other planets and smaller objects in the solar system. Flagship missions that take advantage of these shifts, under the leadership of one country with others contributing, don't always have to be national budget busters.

An artist's conception shows a CubeSat outfitted with an thruster system. Researchers say such a system could conceivable be launched to destinations such as the Jovian moon Europa for as little as $1 million.Univ. of Michigan

While international projects have generally failed in the classic promises of being cheaper, faster and better all at once, they have shown other benefits. They tend to be more robust to failures, and more resistant to a single country's budgetary pressures. They tend to lower international suspicions of secret threatening projects.

So there’s no reason to expect the end to international cooperation in space. It has not ended in oceanography, or in polar science, or in physics. In those arenas, nations and even commercial consortia operate independent facilities that coordinate their research, exchange personnel and instruments, and welcome players from ever-wider circles of society.

The uncertainty surrounding the International Space Station's future is merely an expression of its potential to adapt. With additional modules, it may last for decades. Or as a consequence of Earthside diplomatic divergences, it too may be partitioned, and sole-source services may be replaced with new hardware or new partners. It can continue to serve its true purpose, as an admirable reflection of another brief phase of human space exploration.