In 1984, as part of its interest in reinvigorating the space program, the Reagan administration called for the development of a space station. In a "Kennedyesque" moment, Reagan declared in his 1984 State of the Union address that "America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic, and scientific gain. Tonight I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade."
The dream of a space station had been omnipresent within NASA since the 1950s, when a station had been envisioned as a necessary out-post in the new frontier of space. The station, however, had been forced to the bottom of the priorities heap in the 1960s and 1970s as NASA raced to the Moon and then went on to build the space shuttle. When the shuttle first flew in April 1981, the space station reemerged as the priority in human space flight. Within three years space policymakers had persuaded Reagan of its importance, and NASA began work on it in earnest.
From the outset both the Reagan administration and NASA intended space station Freedom to be an international program. Although a range of international cooperative activities had been carried out in the past, the station offered an opportunity for a truly integrated effort. The inclusion of international partners, many with rapidly developing spaceflight capabilities, could enhance the effort. In addition, every partnership brought greater legitimacy to the overall program and might help insulate it from drastic budgetary and political changes. Inciting an international incident because of a change to the station was something neither U.S. diplomats nor politicians relished, and that fact, it was thought, could help stabilize funding, schedule, or other factors that might otherwise be changed in response to short-term political needs.
NASA officials pressed forward with 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 agreed in the spring of 1985 to participate. Canada, for instance, decided to build a remote servicing system. The European Space Agency agreed to build an attached pressurized science module and an astronaut-tended free-flyer, a vehicle to transport an astronaut and equipment away from a spacecraft. Japan's contribution was the development and commercial use of an experiment module for materials processing, life sciences, and technology development. These separate components, with their "plug-in" capacity, eased somewhat the overall management (and congressional) concerns about unwanted technology transfer.
Almost from the outset, the space station 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. To stay within budget, NASA pared away at station capabilities, 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 Science's Space Science Board, commented in the mid-1980s that he thought the government should be honest about the goals of the station, and "if the decision to build a space station is political and social, we have no problem with that … but don't call it a scientific program."
Because of the cost challenges, 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 envisioned for it, less costly, and more controversial. As costs were reduced, capabilities also had to diminish, and increasingly political leaders who once supported the program questioned its viability. It was a seemingly endless circle, and some leaders suggested that the United States, the international partners, and the overall space exploration effort would be better off if the space station program were terminated.
In the latter 1980s and early 1990s a parade of space station managers and NASA administrators, each of them honest in their attempts to rescue the program, wrestled with Freedom and lost. They faced on one side politicians who demanded that the jobs aspect of the project—itself a major cause of the overall cost growth—be maintained, with station users on the other demanding that Freedom 's capabilities be maintained, and with people on all sides demanding that costs be reduced. The incompatibility of these various demands ensured that station program management was a task not without difficulties.
Just as the Cold War was the driving force behind big NASA budgets in the 1960s, its end was a critical component in the search for a new space policy in the 1990s. Cold War rivalries no longer held real attraction as a selling point for an aggressive space exploration program at least by the mid-1980s. Accordingly, when he became NASA administrator in 1992, Daniel S. Goldin worked to salvage the space station effort with a total redesign that brought the significant space capabilities of the former Soviet Union into the effort. The demise of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, created a dramatically changed international situation that allowed NASA to negotiate a landmark decision to include Russia in the building of an international space station. On 7 November 1993 the United States and Russia agreed to work together with the other international partners to build an International Space Station for the benefit of all.
This strikingly new spin on international relations regalvanized support for the program, and for the next eight years building the ISS dominated the efforts of all the spacefaring nations. In the post–Cold War era this decision provided an important linkage for the continuation of the space station at a time when many were convinced that for other reasons—cost, technological challenge, return on investment—it was an uninviting endeavor.
As a lead-in to the ISS, twenty years after the world's two greatest spacefaring nations and Cold War rivals staged a dramatic docking in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project during the summer of 1975, the space programs of the United States and Russia again met in Earth orbit when the space shuttle Atlantis docked to the aging Russian Mir space station in June-July 1995. "This flight heralds a new era of friendship and cooperation between our two countries," said NASA's Goldin. "It will lay the foundation for construction of an International Space Station later this decade."
The docking missions conducted through 1998 represented a major alteration in the history of space exploration. They also portended considerable controversy. For example, several accidents took place aboard the aging Russian space station that called into question the validity of American involvement in a Russian program that might compromise the safety of American astronauts aboard. Mishaps on Mir in 1996–1998 included a fire inside the station, failure of an oxygen generator, leaks in the cooling system, a docking accident that damaged both the station and the spacecraft to be docked to it, and the temporary malfunction of an attitude control system.
These accidents triggered criticism of U.S.–Russian cooperation in the shuttle- Mir program. That criticism emphasized the safety of the astronauts and the aging character of Mir, noting it was in such bad shape that no meaningful scientific results could be achieved aboard the station. Most asked that Russia deorbit Mir and thereby bring it to "an honorable end," something that finally took place in the spring of 2001. Only with the launch of the first elements of the International Space Station in the autumn of 1998 did public criticism subside on the role of the shuttle- Mir missions in the American space program.
Other questions about the International Space Station program, however, did not subside even with first-element launches in 1998. In addition to schedule and budget concerns, many complained about the integral part played by Russia in building the International Space Station. Most observers agreed that the fundamental problems associated with Russian participation in the space station program could be reduced to a few fine points, as stated by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., chair of the House Committee on Science, in 1998: "One, the Russians failed to follow through on their funding commitments, and two, the Clinton administration brought the Russians into the project for the wrong reasons, placed the Russians in the critical path, and routinely let them off the hook for their failures."
Some warned of complications with Russian involvement as early as September 1993, when President Clinton formally invited the Russian government to join the project, ostensibly as a gesture of goodwill to the former Cold War enemy. In reality, the invitation to the Russians involved gaining Russian compliance with the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary arrangement among twenty-seven countries to control the export of weapons of mass destruction. The Clinton administration admitted as much to Congress on 20 April 1994, when the U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins was asked by Representative Ralph M. Hall, "Give me a 1 to 10 on whether or not we are building the space station with Russia to achieve a particular foreign policy objective such as Russian compliance with the Missile Technology Control Regime." Ambassador Collins replied, "Getting Russia into the Missile Technology Control Regime and bringing it into willingness to comply with those guidelines is a very important objective." This proved unsuccessful, however, as the Russian Space Agency continued selling missile technology to so-called rogue nations. According to Sensenbrenner, American "nonproliferation goals for cooperating with the Russians in the civil space area have not been realized."
Even more than this, the Russians were integrated deeply into the critical path of International Space Station assembly. If they failed to deliver their modules on schedule, ISS assembly had to wait, and every slippage on the part of the Russian Space Agency stretched out the overall station schedule. NASA had assumed a position of complete reliance on Russia for the service module—sole provider of oxygen, avionics, reboost, and sanitary facilities—until much later in the assembly process. This meant, in simple terms, that the entire program was held hostage pending resolution of Russia's internal economic and political problems and external goodwill.
With the belated launch of the Russian service module in July 2000, however, it became clear that international competition had been firmly replaced with cooperation as the primary reason behind huge expenditures for space operations. As the dean of space policy analysts John M. Logsdon concluded, "there is little doubt, then, that there will be an international space station, barring major catastrophes like another shuttle accident or the rise to power of a Russian government opposed to cooperation with the West."
While the challenges of completing the ISS remained quite real, as the twenty-first century dawned the dream of a permanent presence in space seemed on the verge of reality. Before the end of 2000 the first ISS crew inhabited the station. Furthermore, the spacefaring nations of the world had accepted ISS as the raison d'être of their space efforts. Only through its successful achievement, space advocates insisted, would a vision of space exploration that includes all nations venturing into the unknown be ultimately realized. This scenario makes eminent sense if one is interested in developing an expansive space exploration effort, one that leads to the permanent colonization of humans on other planets. At the end of the century, that debate continued. What no one was sure of was how this would unfold in the next century.