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Leaving the (Space) Door Open: ISS Missions as a Platform for International Cooperation

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Written by: Matilde Sacchi

Edited by: ZoiSofologi

Supervised by: Syuzanna Kirakosyan

On 3 March, three American and one Russian astronauts took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Falcon-9 rocket, owned by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, to reachthe International Space Station (ISS) (Le Monde, 2024). A US-Russian partnership, sustained by a private actor, might seem quite surprising amidst renewed geopolitical tension. However, neither the space cooperation between the US and Russia nor the active involvement of private companies in public-funded space operations is new in the space field. The growing impact of these trends on the space activities of other actors, such as the EU, will be significant (Jones, 2023).

Since establishing the research-oriented ISS in 1998, the US and Russia have been the chief ISS partners, alongside the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan and Canada. The US Space Agency (NASA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS)operate different space station segments and have different operational responsibilities. Nevertheless, in 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine,most space partnerships with Russia were interrupted or severed, aside from the ISS.Even in the years preceding the invasion, the two Cold War age space powers had taken different directions and reshaped their space partnerships (Howell, 2024).

Under the Artemis Accords,NASA is leading“a coalition of 30-plus nations that themselves promise peaceful space exploration norms with a subset of countries also participating in moon exploration” (Howell, 2024). One of the key partners of this coalition is the ESA, which provides the fundamental European Service Module (ESM), a component of the Orion spacecraft.In parallel, since March 2022,the ESA has scaled back its cooperation with Russia and suspended work on ExoMars, a rover mission to the red planet (Foust, 2022). Russia also withdrew its engineers from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, where the Russian Soyuz had been used alongside the European Ariane and Vega rockets since 2011.Concurrently, Russia has increased space cooperation with China. In March 2021, China and Russia signed the Memorandum of Understanding regarding Cooperation for the Construction of the International Lunar Research Station. In April 2021, theChina National Space Administration (CNSA) and ROSCOSMOS jointly issued the International Lunar Research Station Guide for Partnership (V1.0).

So far, cooperation in the ISS haswithstood geopolitical tensions, but significant changes are on the horizon (Jones, 2023). NASA and ROSCOSMOSrecently agreed to launch crew members on each other’s spacecraft to the ISS until 2025(NASA, 2023). Thecooperationhas recently involved SpaceXprovidingrockets for NASA missions, whileSoyuzrockets will continue serving Russian ones (AlJazeera, 2022).The private company Space X operates important projects not only for the USbut also for the EU. Since Europe’s Ariane 6 launcher is significantly delayed, the European Commission recently “had to sign a €180 million deal with SpaceX to get its satellites into orbit because Europe’s own rocket program has stalled” (Posaner, 2023).

The dream of inclusive space cooperation is unfortunately coming to an end. The main ISS partners have declared they will dismiss their ISS projects after 2030, and the space station will be officially deorbited in 2031, “bringing it through the atmosphere to safely splash down in the Pacific Ocean”(O’Callaghan, 2023). The end of the ISS and the beginning of a factious and fragmented space environment dominated by private companies might restrict the EU’s possibilities for innovative space cooperation. While the future of space activities remains uncertain, the EU has been urged to develop its space access capacities by the 2023 EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence (European Commission, 2023, p.6) to enter this debate as a peer with other spacefaring nations, protect itsinterest and further its peaceful space agenda.


Al Jazeera. (2022, July 15). US, Russian space agencies sign deal to share flights to ISS.

European Commission (EC) & High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR). (2023, March 10).European Union Space Strategy for Security and Defence, Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council.

Foust, J. (2022, March 17). ESA suspends work with Russia on ExoMars mission.

Howell, E. (2024, January 2).NASA and Russia will keep launching each other’s astronauts to ISS until 2025: report.

Jones, A. (2023, March 7). Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused lasting damage to international spaceflight cooperation.

LeMonde. (2024, March 4). SpaceX fait décoller un nouvel équipage vers la Station spatiale internationale.LeMonde.

NASA. (2020, October 13). The Artemis Accords.

NASA. (2023, November). 2023 Report on NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges.

O’Callaghan, J. (2023, May 3). A fiery end? How the ISS will end its life in orbit. BBC.

Posaner, J. (2023, November 7). So much for strategic autonomy: EU pays Elon Musk €180M to launch its satellites.Politico.