International Space Station Reaches 15 Year Milestone

International Space Station Reaches 15 Year Milestone

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the first crew’s arrival aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  At least two people have been aboard the facility ever since on roughly 6-month shifts — 15 years of permanent occupancy.   NASA, Russia and Japan heralded the event with a press conference with the six people currently aboard (two Americans, one Japanese and three Russians) and Administration and congressional stakeholders issued congratulatory statements.

In 1973, NASA launched its first space station, Skylab, but it hosted only three crews through 1974.  In 1979, Skylab made an uncontrolled reentry, spreading debris over Western Australia and the Indian Ocean.  During most of the 1970s, NASA was busy building the space shuttle as a “truck” that would go, among other places, to a permanently occupied space station in earth orbit.  Following the first space shuttle flight in 1981, building a permanent space station became the key goal of NASA Administrator James Beggs who took office under President Ronald Reagan.  Beggs convinced Reagan to initiate the program and Reagan announced it in his 1984 State of the Union Address.  The President said it would be built within a decade.  NASA told Congress it would cost $8 billion. 

The President directed NASA to invite other countries to join and Europe, Japan and Canada immediately signaled their interest, although it took three years to negotiate the first Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that laid out roles and responsibilities.  In 1988, the United States, Canada, Japan and 11 European nations formally joined together to build Space Station Freedom.  By then, the pricetag had more than doubled and NASA was repeatedly redesigning it to reduce costs.

The United States was not quite in a space race with the Soviet Union at the time, but the geopolitical relationship was frosty.  President Reagan called the USSR the “evil empire” and initiated the Star Wars program to develop a layered ballistic missile defense system including space-based weapons platforms to defend the United States and its allies from Soviet missiles.

During that era, the Soviets were operating their seventh space station, Mir (Peace).  The first modular space station, Mir’s core module was launched in 1986 and it continued growing (albeit slowly) through the mid-1990s.  It was deorbited in 2001 after 15 years in space, but there were a few periods when no one was aboard, which is why the ISS wins the title for the first space station to boast 15 years of permanent occupancy.

The U.S.-Soviet relationship changed dramatically between 1989 and 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

President George H.W. Bush used NASA’s human spaceflight program as a foreign policy tool during that period to warm relationships with the emerging Russian government.   He established the shuttle-Mir program where a Russian cosmonaut would fly on the U.S. space shuttle and an American astronaut would stay aboard Mir.  The Clinton-Gore Administration expanded that program with additional cosmonauts on the shuttle and Americans on Mir, but most significantly brought Russia in as another space station partner.  The Soviets had extensive experience in building and operating space stations, beginning with
Salyut 1 in 1971.  They successfully launched five more Salyuts — Salyut 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 (Salyut 2 was a failure)  — of increasing capability before beginning the Mir program.

NASA had announced another space station cost overrun just as President Clinton took office.  The White House directed NASA to conduct yet another redesign and the name Freedom was dropped.  What ultimately emerged from the redesign effort was similar to Freedom, but with the addition of Russian modules.   The new set of partners could not agree on a name and the facility has been known simply as the International Space Station ever since.

The history of the space station program could fill several books. (This editor  testified to the Senate Commerce Committee in 2005 — when working as a Congressional Research Service specialist — about the evolution of the space station’s rationale and expected uses.  The statement includes a table showing the various redesigns and cost estimates for anyone who wants a simplified account.)   In short, cost overruns and schedule delays turned the 10-year, $8 billion project into one that took 25 years and $60-100 billion (depending on how one counts the costs) to build, not including the costs paid by the other partners.

Currently, ISS consumes about $3 billion of NASA’s roughly $18 billion annual budget to operate.  The United States, Russia and Canada have agreed to keep it operating at least until 2024.  Japan and Europe have not officially signed on to that duration yet.  The question that permeates those discussions is whether the value of the ISS is worth the costs.

The ISS is a laboratory in space for conducting research on how the human body reacts to spaceflight conditions in preparation for long duration flights to Mars; technology demonstrations also related to achieving the humans-to-Mars goal; and scientific research that can benefit the people of Earth.  In assessing the value of the ISS, many space station advocates point to it as an incomparable engineering feat and an example of what countries can accomplish in space when they work together even when geopolitical relationships hit bumps in the road.  Taxpayers in the partner countries, however, often want something more tangible to show for their investment.  

After 44 years of performing research in space stations — from the 1970s to today — no major scientific breakthrough can be attributed to the ability to conduct experiments in a long-term microgravity environment.  Not that there has not been a great deal of research with interesting results — NASA maintains a website describing the experiments on ISS and the American Astronautical Society organizes annual ISS Research and Development conferences — but the “killer app” that compellingly demonstrates its worth remains elusive.

At $3 billion a year, even human spaceflight supporters may begin questioning the need for ISS if it constrains the pace at which new exploration goals, like sending people to Mars, can be achieved.  Some NASA officials including Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, hope the commercial sector will step forward to build future earth orbiting space stations, not on the scale of the ISS, but smaller facilities for specialized purposes. Bigelow Aerospace is offering inflatable modules that could be used in orbit (one will be tested on the ISS next year), but no customers have been announced.  Other stakeholders warn against the United States losing its leadership in space and allowing China to take the lead in earth orbit.  China launched its first space station in 2011.  It is very small compared to even the earliest U.S. and Soviet space stations, but it was visited by two short-duration crews and China has plans for a 60-ton space station early in the next decade.  (ISS weighs approximately 420 tons by comparison.)

For right now, however, the mood is one of heralding the 15-year milestone.  White House Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden praised the ISS in a joint statement as a prime example of international cooperation, a laboratory for “groundbreaking research,” and “a testament to the ingenuity and boundless imagination of the human spirit.”

The top Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), called it an “incredible engineering achievement,” a “visible demonstration of peaceful cooperation in space,” and critical to doing the research that will “make progress toward the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.”

CBS News Space Correspondent Bill Harwood published a four part article today highlighting key points in the history of the ISS and reflections by many observers of and participants in the program, including the first ISS Commander, NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, and former ISS program manager Mike Suffredini.  Harwood quotes Suffredini as marvelling at how well the program has proceeded so far considering all the challenges: “You’re at 900,000-plus pounds of spacecraft with almost an acre’s worth of solar arrays out there, and all of it’s working.  So you’ve got to feel pretty good about that.” 

For this snapshot in time, setting aside the tortuous history and uncertain future, that is a succinct conclusion.

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