For centuries, humans have been fascinated with space and have seen the prospect of controlling space as the ultimate symbol of human achievement. Especially now, with mounting issues of climate change and political instability plaguing the Earth, space is understood as a crucial new frontier. Governments are pouring more and more money into national space programs, which has made space a new arena for political and diplomatic disputes.

The International Space Station (ISS), built through collaboration but headed by the US, has been the site of such recent diplomatic disagreements. Notably, China has been left out of the Station’s operations due to American worries and is now creating its own stations in space. With the two nations butting heads on Earth and now in space, the future of international cooperation in space remains uncertain.

About the International Space Station

The ISS is a 356 feet (109 meters)-long spacecraft built from the combined efforts of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe. The Station’s construction represents a multinational effort to spur innovation and space exploration and to promote diplomatic relations among its contributing nations.

On January 29, 1998, fourteen of the fifteen governments involved in the project signed the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), pushing forward international collaboration in space. The United Kingdom later joined in 2012.

“The object of this Agreement is to establish a long-term international cooperative framework among the Partners, on the basis of genuine partnerships, for the detailed design, development, operation, and utilization of a permanently inhabited civil international Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law,” the IGA reads.

Since construction began in November 1998, the ISS has relied heavily on its international partnerships to maintain itself and stay operational. Although each of the five space agencies, the United States’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Russia’s Roscosmos; the Canadian Space Agency (CSA); the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); and the European Space Agency (ESA), have helped to fund the ISS, the US has invested the most in the project.

The ISS costs the US approximately $3-4 billion a year to operate. In 2015, science reporter Claude Lafleur estimated that NASA alone has financed over 35% of the project.

Politics at the International Space Station

As the ISS’s top funder, the US has immense decision-making power regarding the station’s operations. Since the 1990s, China has been excluded from the space station due to Washington’s objections over the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) secretive nature and close military ties.

The CNSA was formed in 1993 – just one year after China initiated its human space program. Since then, China has heavily invested in its growing space program and became the third country to launch a human into space in 2003 independently.

Countries with advanced space programs often repurpose their technologies for civilian and public scientific projects, rather than just for military purposes. However, China’s advances in space, along with its growing prowess on the international stage, have only heightened US national security concerns. This attention was especially the case after China’s successful anti-satellite missile test in 2007. The nation shot down one of its own satellites, which was seen by some as a signal of its interest in militarizing space technology.

To decrease the potential for accidental information leaks with China, the US Congress passed the Wolf Amendment in 2011, banning all official American contact with the CNSA unless approved by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress.

This legislation is surprising given the US history of cooperation in space. Even amid the Cold War, tensions between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union did not prevent collaboration between the two. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where NASA docked American and Russian spaceships together to perform scientific experiments, is an example of this.

Changing tides

Since the CNSA’s inception, China has made great strides when it comes to space travel. In April 2021, the nation launched the first of eleven missions needed to construct and supply the Tiangong or the China Space Station (CSS), which is set to be completed by 2022. This milestone is significant given that the ISS is expected to run out of funding after 2024. Thus, the Tiangong may become the only space station in Earth’s orbit once the ISS officially ceases operations in 2028.

Although Russia announced its plans to withdraw from the ISS and launch its own space station by 2030, the project is still awaiting approval from President Vladimir Putin.

Interestingly, however, China and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March 2020 regarding the construction of the China-Russia International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). This move has been seen by the US as yet another threat to its own national security.

According to the agreement, the ILRS will be “built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit” and carry out lunar research activities, including observation, exploration and utilization, scientific experiments, and “technical verification.” Like the ISS, the ILRS also aims to promote international cooperation, scientific innovation, and the peaceful operation of outer space.

To the US, such an agreement not only signals Russia’s willingness to partner with China but also its own weakening dominance in space.

As a result, the US has opened up space to commercial companies. Four months after the joint project was announced, the Pentagon, headquarters for the United States Department of Defense, contracted the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) “to craft an experimental space outpost capable of supporting various research and development, training, and operational missions.”

Although the SNC anticipates that the space outpost will launch within the next two years, this experimental mini space station likely will not surpass the magnitude of the CSS or the ILRS.

The End of International Collaboration in Space?

Despite the human-centered, innovation-focused language used to describe the purposes of the ISS and IGA, politics continue to play a role in space. US security concerns have influenced who can participate in the program, indicating the nation’s receding commitment to the ISS’s goals to promote scientific research for all of humanity and facilitate international cooperation in space.

Having been excluded from the ISS, China is currently building its space station and opening partnerships with the CSS to scientists worldwide. Furthermore, although Russia and the US have also considered building their own space outposts, they appear to be less committed to this costly endeavor, paving the way for China’s rise in space. Given the US’ staunch opposition to China’s growing space power, however, the level of international collaboration that will happen with the CSS is unclear.