NASA was compelled to issue an official denial (2) that such a deal had taken place. Even though some discussions have occurred with Russia about a post-ISS space station, NASA’s thinking is more directed to the commercial space sector than with international partners where it concerns such a facility.
The NASA partnership with Russia in space, which began over 20 years ago in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, has been, on the whole, a mutually beneficial one. The story of how Russia morphed from a Cold War-era space competitor to a space partner began some years before the partnership took place.
When President Ronald Reagan first proposed building a space station, the international partners consisted of Canada, the European Union, and Japan. The facility, called Space Station Freedom (3), was supposed to cost $8 billion and take about ten years to build.
But the project suffered from numerous cost overruns, schedule slippages, and redesigns that increased the cost of the space station to close to $100 billion.
Even worse, Space Station Freedom suffered a near-death experience in 1991 when then Rep. Bob Traxler, D-Michigan, the chairman of the House subcommittee that funded NASA, tried to zero out funding for the project. Even though the House eventually restored funding (4) for the space station, it remained a target for a coalition of liberal Democrats and budget hawk Republicans.
In 1993, President Clinton ordered a stem to stern redesign of the space station to bring it under some measure of budget control. Clinton also brought in Russia as a full partner, the theory being that Russia had a considerable amount of aerospace expertise to bring to bear and the space station would give Russian scientists and engineers, who might otherwise go to work building missiles and nuclear bombs for rogue nations, something useful to do.
As a result of Clinton’s initiative, the newly renamed International Space Station ceased to be politically controversial, it having been given a geopolitical purpose. The construction of the ISS proceeded generally smoothly, interrupted only by the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and is currently operating and doing good science research and technology development.
NASA’s Future Plans
The partnership with Russia suffered a hiccup (5) in 2014 when Vladimir Putin threatened to end the ISS in 2020 over economic sanctions that were imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States, pending the advent of commercially developed space craft, is entirely dependent on Russia for access to the ISS since the end of the space shuttle program. However, those questions were eventually ironed out or perhaps smoothed over, and Russia is on board the ISS until 2024.
That leaves the question of what NASA will do for a space station once the ISS is decommissioned in 2024. By that year, the space agency should be deeply involved in deep space exploration leading up to eventual missions to Mars in the 2030s. However, the success of the ISS has demonstrated the usefulness of having an orbiting space laboratory.
NASA’s vision for a post-ISS space station consists of a commercial company, such as Bigelow Aerospace (6), building such a facility. Then NASA, other countries, and private entities would rent space on the commercial space station.
Astronauts would ride up to and down from the space station on commercial space craft being developed to service the ISS, such as the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing CST-100.
The commercialization of low-Earth orbit, first envisioned by President George W. Bush, would thus be complete, while NASA concentrates on the exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.