Late last month, Russia announced that it would withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024.
Space experts have been concerned about this possibility since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, so the announcement wasn’t particularly surprising, but it was discouraging nonetheless.
Since its launch in 1998, the ISS has been painted as a symbol of science diplomacy — the practice of nations putting politics aside to use or engage in science for the common good. The station literally cannot function with just one country at the helm: Russians provide the propulsion that keeps the station in orbit and Americans provide the electricity. This interdependence and cooperation can be traced back to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The treaty, signed by both nations, was motivated by fears that the world’s major powers would send nuclear weapons into space.
What started as a set of rules to avoid apocalypse evolved into a roadmap for a kind of scientific utopia. In addition to establishing space as a place to be used for ‘peaceful purposes’, the treaty provided for ‘freedom of scientific research in space’ and ‘international cooperation in such research’.
It was an ambitious vision and after the Cold War ISS became the testing ground.
From the launch of the first component into low Earth orbit in 1998 to the modular completion of the station in 2012, there was cause for hope. “NASA and Roscosmos may have had their greatest renaissance in terms of practical collaboration in lower Earth orbit,” said Benjamin Schmitt, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-founder of the Space Diplomacy Lab at Duke University. . But, of course, all good things must come to an end — and in this case, Dimitry Rogozin, the then director general of Roscosmos, Russia’s NASA equivalent, began ramping up threats against the US-Russia partnership on what Schmitt’s saying. histrionic fashion’. .”
It started with vague threats to withdraw in 2014 – Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea brought US sanctions harming several Russian technology sectors, including Roscosmos. It escalated in early 2022 to alarming but dubious claims that Russia would deliberately crash the ISS into Earth. But the most chilling moment came in November 2021, when a Russian rocket exploded unannounced on a Russian satellite, forcing the seven ISS crew members to take shelter in their transport pods. Among them were two Russian cosmonauts.
“It was a huge field of space debris,” Schmitt said. He suspects that the Russian goal was to deter Western aid to Ukraine. “Like, ‘We can shoot down your satellites.’ It is clear that the Russians became reckless with their co-operative scientific investment in the ISS, but what is still unclear is why they endangered two of their own cosmonauts.
Despite the tumult, the ISS’s appeal as a sanctuary for science and peace persisted. The people who live in the space station are still the strongest disciples. A few months ago, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov called the ISS “a symbol of friendship and cooperation” when he handed over command of the station to US astronaut Thomas Washburn. “People have problems on Earth,” said Shkaplerov, “…in orbit we are one crew.”
Astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS are codependent. They have to drink each other’s recycled pee for hydration, often mixing it with flavored powders. This makes sense. To believe that your space station is safe from current politics, you have to drink some sort of Kool-Aid.
What does this mean? Well, if the ISS was ever a symbol of science diplomacy, it was never a particularly useful symbol. No place accessible to humans is unreachable to human politics, even if it is hermetically sealed. Earth’s earth-shattering, science-relevant problems are inherently political and deserve a pragmatism that the ISS’s handy ideals haven’t always taken into account — or at least haven’t for a long time. So this moment allows us to rethink the role of the ISS, and space exploration in general, in science diplomacy as a whole.
Science diplomacy goes beyond the glamor of space exploration, and more importantly, beyond the superpowers of the US and Russia that have long dominated it. Most of today’s pressing problems hit smaller and poor countries the hardest, but those same countries are also the ones that give me the most hope for both the great and the future of science diplomacy.
The future is big enough for different kinds of international cooperation, adapted to different cultures and political landscapes, so that people can understand and manage nature for the common good. That’s what my colleagues from six Persian Gulf countries and I argued recently in Science Magazine: we need pragmatic science diplomacy that doesn’t condone politics today — or how they can change tomorrow for better or for worse. “Post-conflict? The Persian Gulf should never be a post-conflict!’” an Iraqi colleague once said to me with a laugh. Her point was that this doesn’t mean we can’t have scientific collaboration.
Take, for example, the unraveling of our global ocean. As a marine scientist I sat in the front row – and the view was not good. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s fish stock is overfished. Shipping makes large parts of the ocean noisy and toxic. Heat waves in the ocean push animals to their limits. Climate change is rearranging the deck from which ocean critters survive and where they go. Sea levels are rising faster than scientists once thought.
Being American, I am more protected from the effects of these impacts than my colleagues in the South, who have led the way by calling for more diplomacy around the oceans as climate change accelerates.
The ocean feeds the world and drives communities out of the depths of poverty. The United Nations estimates that fisheries and aquaculture provide 3 billion people with nearly 20 percent of their animal protein each year. In West Africa, that number can rise to 60 percent. The countries of the world that are most dependent on the ocean do not have space programs. Many hardly have any marine science programs.
Cape Verde, for example, survives from fishing and ocean-related tourism. In June, I saw officials from this small African country come to Washington DC to sign an agreement that now makes it easier for marine scientists from other wealthier Atlantic states – such as the US and the European Union – to help Cape Verde investigating emerging threats in its life-giving waters. The All-Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Alliance Declaration may not be as glamorous as the ISS. But it offers very real hope for richer countries helping poor countries under their waters. At the same time, countries around the world are currently finalizing a new UN treaty to better protect the high seas, creating the first legally binding framework to both halt exploitation and preserve the oceans’ ecosystems.
Poorer countries are also testing new models of diplomacy on their own terms. African nations — assisted by an organization co-founded by Nelson Mandela — have pushed the boundaries of preserving vast tracts of land and ocean in “peace parks.” Imagine two countries plagued by political tensions protecting a common resource the size of Rhode Island. In areas ravaged by foreign illegal fishing, such as the sea border between South Africa and Mozambique, this work has provided bright spots of ocean diplomacy and protected fish stocks, while opening up possible scenarios where the two countries do not always get along. There is even a naval peace park between North Korea and South Korea.
The future of diplomacy in space is uncertain. Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are also key partners in the ISS, and astronauts from 18 countries have visited the station. NASA, meanwhile, is working with private companies to eventually replace the ISS with commercial space stations, according to the Associated Press. In addition, some skeptics argue that Russia’s recent announcement of leaving the ISS is purely political – 2024 is still a long way off and Russia may decide to be part of ISS operations anyway.
But if Russia leaves, it’s okay to let our utopian, “here we are one” vision of science diplomacy die. It is no longer useful to view distant places, such as outer space, as safe from the messiness of politics. In any case, the need for space diplomacy will only increase as countries become more dependent on satellite communications and also become more vulnerable after dark. As conflicts flare up, we’ll become more inseparable on the ground from what’s happening in space. For that reason, space diplomacy might do well to learn from other forms of diplomacy built with the worst-case scenario in mind. “Anticipative diplomacy” is one approach, Schmitt said: “It’s a framework where you basically try to look over the horizon” and prepare for worst-case scenarios. It’s something climate diplomacy and pandemic diplomacy have been doing from the start. Emerging forms of ocean diplomacy are also taking over.
When we let go of our techno-idealism about space, as well as our bias towards the stories constructed by global superpowers, we open up to the pragmatism of true collaboration. There is ocean degradation, but also climate change, global health and human rights. Space exploration can be part of solving those problems. Indeed, research on the ISS has helped develop vaccines, monitor natural disasters, assess water quality and improve indoor air quality, to name a few. But we need more sustainable, realistic frameworks to continue cooperation in space, and we also need to invest much, much more in pragmatic scientific collaboration on Earth.
With or without Russia’s continued participation, the lights will eventually go out aboard the ISS sometime around 2031, when it will fall back to Earth and splash into the ocean. I hope at that point a symbol for science diplomacy is not the giant piece of metal, but the ocean that caught it.
Future Tense is a collaboration of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy, and society.