When Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned to Earth in 1974, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the thick of the Cold War that had threatened the planet’s survival. But to Mitchell, being in space provided a different perspective.
As Mitchell was splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, the two countries were already laying the foundation for cooperation in space policy.
A year later, the superpowers would launch the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project signaling the countries’ intent to work together in space in the decades to come. The two countries would remain unrivaled until the rise of the Chinese space program in the 1990s.
Today, the U.S. and Russian space agencies have been more collaborative than the governments that fund them.
“Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War,” said NASA spokesman Dan Huot. That cooperation is also the foundation for what Huot calls “the largest and most complex spacecraft ever flown”: the International Space Station.
A Look at the Station
Space agencies from 15 countries have been involved with the space station since its launch in 1998. An army of construction, processing, mission operations support, research and communications facilities spanning the globe are required to keep the station and its international rotation of astronauts flying. Even the station itself is a hodgepodge of modules and parts from around the world, built in phases over two decades.
“Elements launched from different countries and continents are not mated together until they reach orbit, and some elements that have been launched later in the assembly sequence were not yet built when the first elements were placed in orbit,” Huot said.
There have been 56 ISS expeditions, involving more and more countries over time. Expedition 20 stands out to Huot — it expanded the ISS crew from three to six, and included crewmembers from the U.S., Russia, Japan, Belgium and Canada.
The U.S. is not one of those nations, at least for the time being. Because of a clause inserted into the 2011 federal budget that effectively banned NASA from any cooperation with China, the nation has been excluded from ISS projects.
That hasn’t hampered China’s progress. The country now spends over 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product on science, eclipsing the percentage spent by the Russians in 2004 and approaching the 2.74 percent the U.S. spends on science each year.
During Barack Obama’s administration, NASA explored greater collaboration with private companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK for launch vehicles and resupply missions. In 2010, Obama canceled NASA’s plans to return to the moon, and the U.S. has been without human spaceflight capabilities for nearly a decade.