In orbit around the Earth since 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) is a multilateral project involving five space agencies from around the world.
He has conducted thousands of experiments and helped superpowers keep communication corridors open, even when relations on Earth have been frosty.
However, it is unclear whether the ISS will also reach NASA’s proposed end-of-life date in 2031.
Key partners are threatening to withdraw amid rising tensions and costs at a time when the ISS is needed more than ever.
So why won’t we see another internationally built space station on this scale, and what does the demise of the ISS tell us about the rise of conflict in space?
The origins of the ISS
The world’s first space station, Salyut 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1971. The United States followed suit in 1973 with its manned Skylab.
However, decades of Cold War and Space Race antics ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in 1991 former rivals reunited to work on the ISS.
Dr Mariel Borowitz, an expert on space policy issues and an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says building and deepening international relations was probably the most important goal of the ISS.
Technically, the ISS has passed all warranty periods. A process similar to an avalanche of equipment failures begins, cracks appear.
He says a driving reason for the ISS was “to work with allies on a large, highly visible, scientifically and technically advanced project, but then also to engage with Russia specifically on this kind of peaceful cooperation.”
Borowitz points out that this international cooperation has also been accompanied by scientific gains and advances in technology and capabilities for human exploration in space.
The project also lowered costs for participating nations by pooling their resources.
Dr. Dimitrios Stroikos, Space Policy Project Manager at LSE IDEAS and Space Policy Editor-in-Chief, highlights another strategic reason for Russia’s inclusion in the ISS project.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he believes it was a way for Americans to keep Russian scientists and engineers busy and prevent the sharing of sensitive technology with rival states.
Rising costs and different goals
Given its scientific benefits and drive for international cooperation; why are we talking about the end of the ISS?
One of the main reasons is rising costs and shifting strategic objectives, which are now very different from when the ISS was first established.
The ISS alone costs NASA about €3.8 billion ($4 billion) a year to operate, with the European Space Agency (ESA) setting the price for ISS development and operation in ten years to 100 billion euros.
Unfortunately for the countries participating in the programme, the station is aging rapidly, further increasing its operating costs.
Although the ISS retirement date was previously extended, the ISS has experienced air leaks, software failures, and fire alarm activations in recent years.
The increase in ISS maintenance costs comes as countries are turning their attention to new projects, such as NASA’s Artemis program tasked with returning humans to the Moon or sending rockets to Mars.
The commercialization of space and NASA’s growing use of private companies has also made a new intergovernmental ISS unlikely.
As part of its Commercial LEO Destinations project, NASA will commit nearly €500 million to private companies developing private space stations.
A more armed and contested space
However, another reason for the disappearance of the ISS is that space is fundamentally more contested and is increasingly being weaponized by competing powers.
Growing geopolitical tensions and strife on Earth are also spilling over into space.
While the United States is outsourcing its space station capabilities to private partners, emerging powers are busy developing their own space stations.
China, which has been barred from projects involving NASA since 2011 due to the Wolf Amendment, is building its own Tiangong space station. The station is expected to be finished by the end of this year.
We could see the emergence of two factions, one led by the United States and the other led by China and Russia, a kind of spheres of influence in space characterized by competition.
After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions, Russia has also confirmed that it intends to abandon the ISS program by 2024 to pursue its own space station which it says will be open to cooperation with “friendly countries “.
In September, recently appointed Russian space chief Yuri Borisov branded the ISS as “dangerous” and unfit for purpose.
“Technically, the ISS has passed all warranty periods,” he said. “A process like an avalanche of equipment failures is starting, cracks are appearing.”
China’s space efforts have also prompted other space powers, such as India, to accelerate their own plans for domestic space stations.
Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the CSST and former deputy director of the Indian Security Council secretariat, says there is no doubt that space is becoming more and more contested.
However, he also says that this growing strife has led to new partnerships and developments that would have been difficult to predict a decade ago.
“This competition is also stimulating a certain cooperation, which otherwise could not have been seen, for example, in the four countries [America, Australia, India, and Japan] talking about space competition,” Rajagopalan said.
One example is India’s increased cooperation with Japan, the United States and Australia and its leading role in talking about rules, rules and regulations in space.
“We could see the emergence of two camps, one led by the United States and the other led by China and Russia, sort of spheres of influence in space characterized by competition,” Stroikos added.
He adds that, unlike in the Cold War, today the great space powers do not talk to each other and this is rather problematic, but it does not mean that conflict in space is inevitable.
Bigger problems to solve in space
While the disappearance of the ISS is one of the most visible signs that we are entering a different era of space politics, Stroikos argues that we shouldn’t get sidetracked by bigger issues.
“My main concern is how heightened tensions will further increase distrust between major space powers, at a time when cooperation is urgently needed to address global space challenges, such as space debris, and establish norms of responsible behavior.” he has declared.
It remains to be seen if attempts to resolve tensions and space policy issues will be successful or if, like the ISS, they will crash back to Earth.