In the midst of the Cold War, the Soyuz-Apollo rendezvous marked a change in the relationship between the Soviets and Americans in space. It had been, until that point, primarily competitive, even in space science. After the fall of the Soviet Union, more examples of U.S.-Russian cooperation in orbit emerged, including the Shuttle-Mir Program and the International Space Station. (The latter, of course, represented cooperation between more than the two long-standing rivals; a bevy of other programs, including the European Space Agency and Japan, made key contributions to the project.)
But the end of the space race between Washington and Moscow also marked the end of expansive budgets for NASA. At the height of the Apollo program, the United States spent 4.2 percent of its federal budget on NASA. Today that figure is under half a percent. As its funding shrank, the U.S. space agency sought more partnerships with other countries and the private sector to help finance its research efforts. By working together, space agencies can pool resources and study areas of mutual benefit. And though the United States provides most of the funding for the International Space Station, it still gains by sharing the expense with others.
Manned space flight, which is particularly important for basic science research, offers relatively few military applications at the moment. No space special forces units will be formed anytime soon, and even the idea of manned space reconnaissance and imaging programs has been superseded by remote technologies in satellites. Compared with other areas of space technology, the focus of manned spaceflight is largely fixed on research and development. Crewed space stations provide a clean, weightless environment perfect for experiments that cannot easily be replicated on Earth — in fact, some research can only be performed in outer space.
Crew members aboard the International Space Station. (MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Collaboration in space can also have clear diplomatic objectives back home. The Soyuz-Apollo mission came at a time of thawing relations between the Soviets and Americans. The Shuttle-Mir Program and the International Space Station initially gave Washington a way to foster better coordination between the Russian space sector and the international community. To a degree, all cooperative space programs include a tinge of diplomacy, but some countries pay far more attention to those benefits than others do. For China and Russia in particular, access to space is an important part of their strategies to limit Western dominance in orbit and to bring other nations closer to them politically.
Of course, cooperation has its limits. The United States has long banned Chinese scientists from working with their NASA counterparts because of national security concerns. The cooperative nature of the International Space Station requires participating countries to hand over technical information and make their hardware freely accessible to anyone involved in the program, a step China has been hesitant to take. But it is moving toward establishing its own campus of research in orbit. In September, China fielded its second space lab in preparation for launching its own small space station in the 2020s. Meanwhile, Russia has announced that it intends to separate its International Space Station modules from the bulk of the main station by 2024 and begin building its own outpost in space. As more nations develop their space programs, China, Russia and the United States will furiously compete to interest them in research partnerships.
At the Cooperative Crossroads
Space cooperation today is at a crossroads. With the International Space Station's mission scheduled to end in 2024 — though it could be extended until 2028 — the United States, Russia and other countries are divided on the overall direction of space research, both manned and unmanned.
While China is still studying the moon, its biggest priority is to establish a space station in Earth's orbit. China's station will be relatively small at first, able to support only three taikonauts, but the country plans to someday expand the station's capacity and has called on other countries — especially developing ones — to join the project. It wants those partners to send experiments, payloads and personnel to its station, possibly even adding their own modules. With its space station, Beijing plans to follow the model it showcased in the One Belt, One Road strategy: use economic projects to gain political support abroad, particularly in the developing world, which is rife with countries that are becoming more reliant on space systems and more interested in space research and development.
Russia is also pursuing its own space station project. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has announced that it intends to build a station around the nucleus of its section of the International Space Station. In the meantime, Russia is considering downsizing its operations on the station by reducing its crew from three to two. Before that plan is set in motion in 2024, Russia will continue adding modules to the International Space Station, some of which could form the basis of its future facility. Whether Moscow will be able to realize those plans, however, is uncertain given the financial pressure Russia is under. Its space strategy largely revolves around its military programs, and space science is a secondary concern. As Russia continues to pare down its budget, its space science program will face cuts before the military aspects of it are touched. The value of the ruble, the price of oil and the health of the Russian economy will determine whether Russia can achieve its goals in orbit without substantial help from others.
In contrast to Russia and China, which are concentrating on their own space stations and, to a lesser extent, the moon, NASA and the United States — at least under the current presidential administration — are squarely focused on reaching Mars. NASA expects to conclude its research on the International Space Station before 2024 and will likely choose not to support the station much past that. Budgetary constraints and a shift in priority to Mars missions will determine the agency's direction — unless, of course, a future administration sends NASA down a different path.
The U.S. private sector is more likely to continue the country's involvement with space station projects. SpaceX, Boeing and other private companies will probably support an orbital lab to conduct studies to help NASA prepare for any Mars missions. Commercial space research could also provide a revenue stream for those companies that might eventually become an integral part of their business models. Bigelow Aerospace is the company perhaps most focused on developing a commercially oriented space station. It deployed a module, essentially an inflatable space habitat, to the International Space Station this year, hoping to use that technology as the basis to develop fully functional modules for the station or, perhaps, for a private commercial space station. Forming partnerships that increase the amount of available funding is crucial to all commercial enterprises in space.
Cooperation in space science research — and more specifically, on space labs and stations — has been a near constant since the 1970s. But that is slowly changing. As more countries develop national space programs, those already at the top will be forced to compete for their assistance. Instead of science superseding national interests, we are entering an age where those interests will play a bigger and bigger role for states operating in space.