Construction of the ISS marked the end of another era: The Space Race.
In the 1950s, the US and the USSR engaged in what would become a decades-long rivalry that reached far beyond political ideology. Space exploration was one of the key boiling points in the Cold War. International advancements in human spaceflight were not cheered on — they were seen as toxic, demoralizing events for the American psyche. When USSR cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, NASA astronaut Charles Duke recalled to BBC, “When we flew, my first impression was - well, they beat us again.”
The Space Race had little room for interpretation or nuance. The US either made it there first or didn’t. It was a duel of ingenuity, not brawn, with feats of incredible technological advancement. But without an appropriate counterpart to weigh these herculean efforts against, there was always a risk the winner might lose motivation. After the 1969 Moon landing, the popular view of space exploration progressively waned. The national consciousness went like this:
We already beat them to the Moon. Why do anything else?
The ISS changed that narrative. Countries were no longer barreling ahead to be the first to conquer space; they were now working together to explore it. Still, the transition from competition to collaboration was not easy. It required a high level of diplomacy that was usually reserved for affairs happening here on Earth. At Johnson Space Center, Deputy Manager of the Commercial Crew Program Ven Feng recalls the practical challenges that faced the ISS’s beginnings, “I remember early discussions about, ‘Hey, are we going to use metric or English units?’ And it turns out there’s actually different metric conversions once you get about three or four decimal places out.”
“And which language should we use on the space station?"
"First we got all these international partners on the same kinds of standards — and we learned how to operate together. Then we went into the assembly phase.”
Beyond language barriers and measurement standards, the ISS required a massive amount of sheer labor. “The assembly phase literally took over a hundred flights from all these different countries in order to first build and maintain and deliver crews to and from the space station. It took 37 Space Shuttle flights, plus a number of other flights from the Russians, from the Europeans, from the Japanese.”
Feng has worked at NASA since construction of the ISS began in the late 90’s. Over the span of his impressive career, he’s held several leadership positions across ISS operations. He’s seen firsthand just how the scope of the Station has grown, shifted, and changed. Thanks to this new era of spaceflight, a huge window of possibilities has opened up for the ISS. Looking back on the station’s history, Feng recalls, “The station has really gone from an international tool to learn how to assemble large structures in space to using it for scientific research. And then also providing that stepping stone for the next thing - for exploration.”
“So once we learn how to live and work in space and build things in space, we’ll go on and beyond — back to the Moon and onto Mars.”
Feng’s comments reflect a larger shift in the space industry. Human space exploration is reaching another precipice — one that could lead to the creation of human habitats on Mars. The ISS has become a unique testing ground for the viability of not only life in space but also of commercial ventures. SpaceX and NASA made history this past November with Crew-1, the first crewed operational flight of the Crew Dragon vehicle to the ISS. While Crew-1 broke tradition by flying a commercial spacecraft, it’s in keeping with ISS goals of international collaboration. JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi flew aboard Crew Dragon alongside NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker. Together, they’re currently in orbit, as part of ISS Expedition 64.
To Feng, international collaboration is a path to ensuring success in space.
“We sprinted with Apollo. One country got to the Moon — planted our flag multiple times — and it was a tremendous achievement. But I think for the longevity of [exploration,] there are so many reasons to do it together, with other countries. There is a strength in the different technologies. It means dividing the cost. It means getting a broader base of support. It means sharing the benefits more broadly. International is the way to go.”
Collaboration does make a significant difference when it comes to cost. According to a 2005 report released by NASA, the Apollo program cost a whopping 165 billion dollars when adjusted for inflation. Adjust that number again for 2020, and it’s much closer to 223 billion. Comparatively, NASA’s 2019 audit revealed that service to the ISS only costs NASA 3 to 4 billion annually. Even if the US is capable of launching back to the Moon and then to Mars on its own, costs and the approval of those costs would still be a major hurdle to cross. Working with other countries guarantees, to some degree, access to more resources. Crew-1 will create the foundation for future collaborative missions and since NASA aims to land humans back on the Moon in the next few years, setting a precedent now is critical.
“These same international partnerships may go back to the Moon together, and go off and explore the Solar System. I can’t overstate the importance of the international framework," said Feng. "There really are treaty-level agreements that enable this amongst all of the international partnered governments. Without that framework, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
This diplomatic framework has held up impressively for several decades. On January 29th, 1998, 16 countries (including the US) signed the ISS agreements — several memoranda of understanding that created the structure of international cooperation that still exists on the ISS today. Feng has done extensive work helping to implement human spaceflight policy abroad. “Within the framework of the treaty-level agreements, the intergovernmental agreements and the HOC-level MOUs, we have […] very high-level principles that say, ‘Hey, we’re going to operate together and we’re going to do things on a civil as opposed to military basis.’ We’re going to make sure that we keep the station resupplied.”
Additionally, these agreements help ISS participants split the benefits of research fairly. “Looking across the various areas I worked, whether it was in crew training, avionics software, or research integration, or in transportation, what I helped implement is, ‘Hey, what’s the fair share of what the US brings, and how do we trade to our mutual benefit?’ We do that a lot through these agreements,” Feng says, “And it sets a precedent [...] that’s continued now for decades, and it’s been very successful.”
“This framework we put together, we’re going to take it to the Gateway. We’re going to take it to other space stations, and we’re going to take it to Mars and beyond.”
It remains to be seen which will come first, another space station or a crewed journey to Mars. During NASA’s pre-launch briefing of Crew-1, Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations Kathy Lueders confirmed the ISS is nearing the end of its lifetime. It still remains to be seen just when that fateful day of decommissioning will come. For now, NASA set a target retirement date for 2024 - coinciding with the Artemis program’s third planned mission, which intends to put the first woman on the Moon.
The ISS was originally a project to promote world peace. Now, As the 20th anniversary passes, Feng and his team reflect on what’s been done and what lies ahead.
“I think everybody really gets the significance of the anniversary. We’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” says Feng, “When the station was first conceived, it was supposed to be about a 15-year program. Here we are, about to celebrate 20 years.”
“We’re trying to develop an economy in low-earth orbit, with space-related activities, and all the other reasons to be there… so that perhaps November 2nd, back in the year 2000, may be the last time we didn’t have somebody continuously in space.”