Nations in Orbit
Geopolitical tension between the world’s most prominent space actors has resulted in the disintegration of cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS), one of humanity’s incredible scientific achievements that have kept a constant human presence in outer space for over two decades. The ISS is now subject to becoming debris by the 2030s, as it will de-orbit through the atmosphere and attempt to crash into a remote part of the South Pacific Ocean, dubbed Point Nemo.
The ISS operates under a constant partnership between the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and eleven countries operating through the European Space Agency (ESA). While all members but Russia renewed their lease on the station until 2030, it seems there will be no further international collaboration in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) after the ISS is decommissioned.
This feat of cooperation is dying with no outlook on another international project of this scale replacing it, marking a new era of international relations between spacefaring nations in Earth’s orbit. Looking forward, spacefaring nations will seek to cooperate on more challenging adventures; the Artemis Program will return humanity to the Moon and build a sustainable presence. All of the collaborators on the ISS were invited to join in on the US-led initiative. Russia was the only country to decline the invitation.
Seemingly, the path forward for humans in orbit will involve smaller, commercially built unilateral space stations. Here’s a look into what the major spacefaring nations have planned over the next few years after the ISS.
As a major stakeholder on the ISS, the United States plans to transition its focus from the ISS to the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable lunar presence. NASA is also working with commercial and international partners on developing the Gateway, a lunar orbiting outpost that will serve as a staging point for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
The American future presence in LEO will rely on the development of private aerospace companies, and according to Robyn Gatens, the director of the ISS at NASA, “The commercial LEO destination partners we are working with today have plans to be operational as early as 2027.”
Russia plans to continue its participation in the ISS until 2024, but it has not yet announced any concrete plans for a post-ISS presence in space. It is expected that Russia will focus on developing its own space station, which may involve collaboration with other countries. Russia intends to fulfill all obligations to its partners before departing. Relations are rocky due to the invasion of Western-backed Ukraine, which makes Russia an uneasy partner in space exploration and science.
Since the end of the US Space Shuttle operation in 2011, Russia has been the sole launcher for all nations wishing to access the ISS for an entire decade. The SpaceX Dragon mission in 2021 was the first successful human launch to the ISS outside of Russia, which represented the fracturing of international cooperation in outer space after three decades of progress and warm relations.
European Space Agency (ESA)
The ESA plans to continue its participation in the ISS until at least 2024, but it is also exploring the possibility of developing its own space station in the future. They’ve opened the field for new partners, state and commercial alike, to test and develop orbital infrastructure. The agency is also working on a range of missions to explore the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system. The ESA has always been one of the leaders in unmanned satellite missions to other parts of our solar system, it will be interesting to see how the agency splits its funding and initiatives up now that they can rely on commercial actors for orbital activity.
Japan plans to continue its participation in the ISS through 2030, but it is also working on developing its own space station from the already existing Kibo module, which is already a part of the ISS. Japan’s module will be detached sometime in the mid-2020s and used as its own station. JAXA, Japan’s Space Agency, is also exploring the possibility of a crewed lunar mission in the future. Japan will play a vital role in the upcoming Artemis missions, as the country agreed to supply parts to the Gateway Station. In return, the US committed to flying a Japanese astronaut beyond low-Earth orbit to join the crew manning the station that will eventually orbit the moon.
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) plans to continue its involvement in space exploration through various initiatives after the ISS is decommissioned. Canada’s main focus area is lunar exploration. The agency is a partner in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. Canada’s contribution to the Artemis program includes the development of a robotic arm called Canadarm3, which will be used to assist with lunar surface operations.
A significant presence in outer space, China has been excluded from working on the ISS due to American political and security concerns, as well as laws enacted by the United States Congress that restrict cooperation with China in 2011. Since then, the country has been rapidly expanding its space program and finished building its Tiangong space station in late 2022. China is currently in the process of selecting the first candidates for flights to the station and is willing to open up the selection process to foreign candidates as well. The station consists of three modules and can accommodate six astronauts, but is only a fraction of the size of the ISS.
China is also working on developing a crewed lunar mission and exploring the possibility of a Mars mission in the future.
The major spacefaring nations have all announced their plans for the future, with a focus on developing their own space stations and exploring the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system. While this presents exciting opportunities for human exploration of space, the lack of international cooperation in orbit raises questions about the future of space as a global commons. As countries with emerging space programs look to the commercial sector in order to participate in outer space, the need for democratic decisions on the use and exploration of space will become increasingly important.