We are coming up on the the thirtieth anniversary of the public announcement by President Ronald Reagan in his January 25, 1984, State of the Union Address about building a space station. At that time he said: “America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again.… I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station.… NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.”
This represented the culmination of a decades-long effort by NASA to achieve a presidential decision in favor of building a space station. Once the Space Shuttle entered service in the early 1980s, however, NASA pressed relentlessly for this program, which its leaders promoted as “the next logical step.”
There is a long record of dreams about a space station, from the musings Russian schoolteacher Konstantin E. Tsiolkovskiy through Austrian engineer Hermann Noordung to the salesmanship of German émigré Wernher von Braun and beyond. Everyone seemingly accepted the vision of a space station facilitating the human exploration of the cosmos. Accordingly, studies of space station configurations had been an important part of NASA planning in the 1960s and the Skylab of the 1970s was the tangible result of these conceptions.
After Reagan’s mandate, in 1985 the space agency came forward with designs for an $8 billion dual‑keel space station configuration, to which were attached a large solar power plant and several modules for microgravity experimentation, life science, technical activities, and habitation. This station also had the capacity for significant expansion through the addition of other modules.
From the outset, both the Reagan administration and NASA intended Space Station Freedom, as it was then called, to be an international program. NASA leaders negotiated international agreements among thirteen nations to take part in the Space Station Freedom program. Japan, Canada, and the nations pooling their resources in the European Space Agency (ESA) agreed in the spring of 1985 to participate. Canada, for instance, decided to build a remote servicing system. Building on its Spacelab experience, ESA agreed to build an attached pressurized science module and an astronaut‑tended free‑flyer. Japan’s contribution was the development and commercial use of an experiment module for materials processing, life sciences, and technological development. These separate components, with their “plug-in” capacity, eased somewhat the overall management (and congressional) concerned about unwanted technology transfer.
Almost from the outset, the Space Station Freedom program was controversial. Most of the debate centered on its costs versus its benefits. One NASA official remembered that “I reached the scream level at about $9 billion,” referring to how much U.S. politicians appeared willing to spend on the station. As a result, NASA designed the project to fit an $8 billion research and development funding profile. For many reasons, some of them associated with tough Washington politics, within five years the projected costs had more than tripled and the station had become too expensive to fund fully in an environment in which the national debt had exploded in the 1980s.
NASA pared away at the station budget, in the process eliminating functions that some of its constituencies wanted. This led to a rebellion among some former supporters. For instance, the space science community began complaining that the space station configuration under development did not provide sufficient experimental opportunity. Thomas M. Donahue, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Michigan and chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Science Board, commented in the mid-1980s that his group “sees no scientific need for this space station during the next twenty years.” He also suggested that “if the decision to build a space station is political and social, we have no problem with that” alluding to the thousands of jobs associated with it. “But don’t call it a scientific program.”
Redesigns of Space Station Freedom followed in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. Each time the project got smaller, less capable of accomplishing the broad projects originally envisioned for it, less costly, and more controversial. As costs were reduced, capabilities also had to diminish, and increasingly political leaders who had once supported the program questioned its viability. That Congress did not terminate the program was in part because of the desperate economic situation in the aerospace industry—a result of an overall recession and of military demobilization after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War—and the fact that by 1992 the project had spawned an estimated 75,000 jobs in thirty-nine states, most of which were key states such as California, Alabama, Texas, and Maryland.
Politicians were hesitant to kill the station outright because of these jobs, but neither were they willing to fund it at the level required to make it a truly viable program. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handled NASA’s budget, summarized this position, “I truly believe that in space station Freedom we are going to generate jobs today and jobs tomorrow—jobs today in terms of the actual manufacturing of space station Freedom, but jobs tomorrow because of what we will learn.”
In the post-Cold War era, furthermore, NASA found a new ally for the space station program in Russia. In the spring and summer of 1992 the two nations began negotiations to undertake cooperative human spaceflight efforts. This was remarkable because of the more than forty years the two nations had been locked in a desperate Cold War in which the world came to the brink of annihilation through nuclear confrontation on more than one occasion. To seal those negotiations, on October 6, 1992, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin and Russian Space Agency director Yuri Koptev signed two cooperative agreements in Moscow regarding human spaceflight. Later agreements brought Russia into the international consortium building the space station. Accordingly, just as the Cold War was the driving force behind expansive budgets for space exploration in the 1960s and continued to influence expenditures in the 1970s and 1980s, its end was a critical component in the search for a new space policy for both the United States and Russia in the 1990s.
Couple that with a redesign of the space station resulting from the new administration of President William J. Clinton in 1993, and the space station took on both a new look and mission, cementing international relations between the world’s two Cold War superpowers.
As the first two station modules, Zarya and Unity, were launched and joined together in orbit in late 1998 several other components were nearing completion at factories around the world. Orbital assembly of the now christened International Space Station (ISS) began a new era of hands-on work in space, involving more spacewalks than ever before and a new generation of space robotics. The Space Shuttle and two types of Russian launch vehicles undertook no fewer than 46 missions to assemble the station.
On October 31, 2000, a momentous occasion arrived when the first crew to occupy the International Space Station inaugurated a new era in space history. When American astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev lifted off in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan en route to their new home aboard the ISS, it represented the last day in which there were no human beings in space. Shepherd served as commander of Expedition One, the first of several crews to live aboard the space station for periods of about four months.
The expectation that ISS would become a centerpiece of research in orbit, what some have referred to as an “NIH in space,” held certain attraction at least for a time. Who knew what manner of bio-technical discoveries might spring from research conducted there? Others have emphasized the station’s significance as a laboratory for the physical sciences, with materials processing in microgravity the chief research effort. Still others suggested that human factors research might gain a leap forward because of the work on ISS, simply because data about changes to the bodies of astronauts engaging in long duration spaceflight would expand the base of scientific knowledge. Finally, some contended that ISS offered a platform for greater scientific understanding of the universe, especially about the origins and evolution of the Sun and the planets of this solar system. Those four scientific endeavors—bio-tech research, materials science, human factors, and space science—represented a panoply of scientific opportunities ballyhooed by advocates of the ISS.
It has now been thirty years since Ronald Reagan announced the NASA’s Space Station program. The Obama administration has just announced that the United States will continue to support the effort for at least another ten years, until 20124. If it retires at that point what will the results of this forty-year effort have been. Will path-breaking research result? Will it help pave the way to future exploration? Will it prove a cul-de-sac of American efforts in space?
Whatever direction for the future, when historians of 100 years hence analyze the space program of this era they will remark on the truly astounding international effort that made the space station a reality and the close cooperation of the U.S., Russia, and the other international partners that made the program a success. The ISS’s lasting legacy is the manner in which it taught nations to work together to accomplish complex, high-technology efforts. Will the space station cooperative effort become a blip on the chronology of international tension and strife or an exemplar of the future?