Politics of the International Space Station


A world map highlighting Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland in red and Brazil in pink. See adjacent text for details.
  Primary contributing nations
  Formerly contracted nations

Politics of the International Space Station have been affected by superpower rivalries, international treaties and funding arrangements. The Cold War was an early factor, overtaken in recent years by United States distrust of China. The station has an international crew, with the use of their time, and that of equipment on the station, being governed by treaties between participant nations.

Usage of crew and hardware

Four pie charts indicating how each part of the American segment of the ISS is allocated. See adjacent text for details.
Allocation of US Orbital Segment hardware usage between nations.

There is no fixed percentage of ownership for the whole space station. Rather, Article 5 of the IGA sets forth that each partner shall retain jurisdiction and control over the elements it registers and over personnel in or on the Space Station who are its nationals.[1] Therefore, for each ISS module only one partner retains sole ownership. Still, the agreements to use the space station facilities are more complex.

The station is composed of two sides: the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS).[2]

  • Russian Orbital Segment (mostly Russian ownership, except the Zarya module)
    • Zarya: first component of the Space Station, USSR/Russia-built, U.S. funded (hence U.S.-owned)
    • Zvezda: the functional center of the Russian portion, living quarters, Russia-owned
    • Pirs: airlock, docking, Russia-owned
    • Poisk: redundancy for Pirs, Russia-owned
    • Rassvet: storage, docking, Russia-owned
  • U.S. Orbital Segment (mixed U.S. and international ownership)
    • Columbus: 51% for ESA, 46.7% for NASA and 2.3% for CSA.[3]
    • Kibō: Japanese module, 51% for JAXA, 46.7% for NASA and 2.3% for CSA.[4]
    • Destiny: 97.7% for NASA and 2.3% for CSA.[5]
    • Crew time, electrical power and rights to purchase supporting services (such as data upload & download and communications) are divided 76.6% for NASA, 12.8% for JAXA, 8.3% for ESA, and 2.3% for CSA.[3][4][5]


In 1978 a milestone was reached in co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union in space with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The project occurred during a period of détente between the two superpowers, and led in July 1975 to Soyuz 19 docking with an Apollo spacecraft.

From 1978 to 1987, the USSR's Interkosmos program included allied Warsaw Pact countries, and countries which were not Soviet allies, such as India, Syria and France, in crewed and uncrewed missions to Space stations Salyut 6 and 7. In 1986, the USSR extended its co-operation to a dozen countries in the Mir program. From 1994 to 1998, NASA Space Shuttles and crew visited Mir in the Shuttle–Mir program.

In 1998, assembly of the space station began.[6] On 28 January 1998, the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) was signed. This governs ownership of modules, station usage by participant nations, and responsibilities for station resupply. The signatories were the United States of America, Russia, Japan, Canada and eleven member states of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom).[7][3] With the exception of the United Kingdom, all of the signatories went on to contribute to the Space Station project. A second layer of agreements was then achieved, a memoranda of understanding between NASA and ESA, CSA, RKA and JAXA. These agreements are then further split, such as for the contractual obligations between nations, and trading of partners' rights and obligations.[3] Use of the Russian Orbital Segment is also negotiated at this level.[8]

Dated January 29, 1998

In 2010, the ESA announced that European countries which were not already part of the program would be allowed access to the station in a three-year trial period.[9]

In March 2012, a meeting in Quebec City between the leaders of the space agencies of Canada, Japan, Russia, the United States and involved European nations resulted in a renewed pledge to maintain the space station until at least 2020. NASA reports to be still committed to the principles of the mission but also to use the station in new ways, which were not elaborated. CSA President Steve MacLean stated his belief that the station's Canadarm will continue to function properly until 2028, alluding to Canada's likely extension of its involvement beyond 2020.[10]

By nation


Brazil joined the ISS as a partner of the United States and this included a contract with NASA to supply hardware to the Space Station.[11] In return, NASA would provide Brazil with access to NASA ISS facilities on-orbit, as well as a flight opportunity for one Brazilian astronaut during the course of the ISS program. However, due to cost issues, the subcontractor Embraer was unable to provide the promised ExPrESS pallet, and Brazil left the program in 2007.[12][13] Regardless, the first Brazilian astronaut, Marcos Pontes, was sent to ISS in April 2006 for a short stay during the Expedition 13 where he realized the Missão Centenário.[14] This was Brazil's first space traveler and he returned to Earth safely.[14] Pontes trained on the Space Shuttle and Soyuz, but ended up going up with the Russians, although he did work at the U.S. Johnson Space Center after returning to Earth.[15]


China is not an ISS partner, and no Chinese nationals have been aboard. China has its own contemporary human space program, Project 921, and has carried out co-operation and exchanges with countries such as Russia and Germany in human and robotic space projects.[16][17] China launched its first experimental space station,[18] Tiangong 1, in September 2011,[19] and has officially initiated the permanently crewed Chinese space station project.[20]

In 2007, Chinese vice-minister of science and technology Li Xueyong said that China would like to participate in the ISS.[21] In 2010, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain stated his agency was ready to propose to the other 4 partners that China be invited to join the partnership, but that this needs to be a collective decision by all the current partners.[22] While ESA is open to China's inclusion, the US is against it.[23] US concerns over the transfer of technology that could be used for military purposes echo similar concerns over Russia's participation prior to its membership.[24][25] Concerns over Russian involvement were overcome and NASA became solely dependent upon Russian crew capsules when its shuttles were grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003,[26] and again after its retirement in 2011.[27][28]

The Chinese government has voiced a belief that international exchanges and co-operation in the field of aerospace engineering should be intensified on the basis of mutual benefit, peaceful use and common development.[16] China's crewed Shenzhou spacecraft use an APAS docking system, developed after a 1994–1995 deal for the transfer of Russian Soyuz spacecraft technology. Included in the agreement was training, provision of Soyuz capsules, life support systems, docking systems, and space suits. American observers comment that Shenzhou spacecraft could dock at the ISS if it became politically feasible, whilst Chinese engineers say work would still be required on the rendezvous system. Shenzhou 7 passed within about 50 kilometres of the ISS.[17][29][30]

American co-operation with China in space is limited, though efforts have been made by both sides to improve relations,[31] but in 2011 new American legislation further strengthened legal barriers to co-operation, preventing NASA co-operation with China or Chinese owned companies, even the expenditure of funds used to host Chinese visitors at NASA facilities, unless specifically authorized by new laws,[32] at the same time China, Europe and Russia have a co-operative relationship in several space exploration projects.[33] Between 2007 and 2011, the space agencies of Europe, Russia and China carried out the ground-based preparations in the Mars500 project, which complement the ISS-based preparations for a human mission to Mars.[34]

On 28 April 2021 China launched the first part of a 11 series module space station named Tiangong Space Station. The Tianhe module was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on a Long March-5B rocket, which contains only living quarters for crew members. The entire space station when constructed will require 10 additional launches between years 2021 through to 2022.[35]

India, South Korea

The heads of both the South Korean and Indian space research organisation ISRO announced at the first plenary session of the 2009 International Astronautical Congress that their nations wished to join the ISS program, with talks due to begin in 2010. [36]

ISRO chairman K. Sivan announced in 2019 that India will not join the International Space Station programme and will instead build a 20 tonne space station on its own.[37]


Italy has a contract with NASA to provide services to the station, and also takes part in the program directly via its membership in ESA.[38]

See also


  1. ^ "A Look at the Russian Side of the Space Station". Air&Space Mag. 5 March 2016. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d "ISS Intergovernmental Agreement". ESA. 19 April 2009. Archived from the original on 10 June 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  3. ^ a b "Memorandum of Understanding Between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Cooperation on the Civil International Space Station". NASA. 24 February 1998. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  4. ^ a b "Memorandum of Understanding Between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States of America and the Canadian Space Agency Concerning Cooperation on the Civil International Space Station". NASA. 29 January 1998. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  5. ^ NASA (18 February 2010). "On-Orbit Elements" (PDF). NASA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2010.
  6. ^ "Human Spaceflight and Exploration—European Participating States". European Space Agency (ESA). 2009. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
  7. ^ "Memorandum of Understanding Between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States of America and the Russian Space Agency Concerning Cooperation on the Civil International Space Station". NASA. 29 January 1998. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  8. ^ "EU mulls opening ISS to more countries". Space-travel.com. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  9. ^ Canada renews pledge to International Space Station until 2020. The Vancouver Sun. 1 March 2012.
  10. ^ "NASA Signs International Space Station Agreement With Brazil". NASA. 14 October 1997. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
  11. ^ Emerson Kimura (2009). "Made in Brazil O Brasil na Estação Espacial Internacional" (in Portuguese). Gizmodo Brazil. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  12. ^ "G1 > Brasil - NOTÍCIAS - Brasil está fora do projeto da Estação Espacial (ISS)".
  13. ^ a b "Brazil's First Astronaut, Fresh ISS Crew Reach Orbit". 30 March 2006.
  14. ^ Rohter, Larry (8 April 2006). "Brazil's Man in Space: A Mere 'Hitchhiker,' or a Hero?". The New York Times.
  15. ^ a b 28 September 2011 Posted: 20:25 BJT(25 GMT) xinhuanet (28 September 2011). "Ministry of Commerce People'S Republic of China". English.mofcom.gov.cn. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  16. ^ a b "We're sorry, that page can't be found" (PDF). 6 February 2017.
  17. ^ "NASA – 09-29-2011". Nasa.gov. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  18. ^ "Tiangong I". Chinese Space Agency. 4 June 2011.
  19. ^ "China modular space station program officially initiated". Chinese Space Agency. 4 June 2011.
  20. ^ Sebastian Rice (17 October 2007). "China wants to help with Space Station". iTWire. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  21. ^ "ESA Chief Lauds Renewed U.S. Commitment to Space Station, Earth Science". Peter B. de Selding, Space News. 2 March 2010.
  22. ^ Spotts, Pete (16 October 2010). "NASA's Bolden walks tight rope on China trip". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  23. ^ "Can China enter the international space family?". Universetoday.com. 10 January 2011. Retrieved 16 January 2011.
  24. ^ Kulacki, Gregory (June 2011). "US and China need contact, not cold war". Nature. 474 (7352): 444–445. doi:10.1038/474444a. PMID 21697927. S2CID 205065370.
  25. ^ "GAO-04-201T NASA: Shuttle Fleet's Safe Return to Flight Is Key to Space Station Progress" (PDF). Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  26. ^ [1]
  27. ^ http://science.house.gov/sites/republicans.science.house.gov/files/documents/hearings/102611_Gerstenmaier.pdf
  28. ^ Sullivan, Patricia (1 October 2006). "Vladimir Syromyatnikov; Designed Docking System for Space Capsules". The Washington Post.
  29. ^ "China Ready to Conduct 2nd Space Docking". English.cri.cn. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  30. ^ "Ministry of Commerce People'S Republic of China". English.mofcom.gov.cn. 26 September 2006. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  31. ^ Seitz, Virginia (11 September 2011), "Memorandum Opinion for the General Counsel, Office of Science and Technology Policy", Office of Legal Counsel, 35, retrieved 23 May 2012
  32. ^ "China may become space station partner". Xinhua News Agency. 1 June 2010. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  33. ^ "Mars500 partners". ESA. 4 June 2011.
  34. ^ April 2021, Leonard David 30. "China's new space station will need 10 more launches to complete". Space.com. Retrieved 2 May 2021.
  35. ^ "South Korea, India to begin ISS partnership talks in 2010". Flight International. 19 June 2010. Retrieved 14 October 2009.
  36. ^ "India planning to have own space station: ISRO chief". The Economic Times.
  37. ^ "International Space Station (ISS)". Italian Space Agency. 18 January 2009. Archived from the original on 23 December 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2009.