Late last month, Russia announced it would withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024.
Space experts have been fretting about this possibility since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, so the announcement wasn’t particularly surprising—but it was nevertheless disheartening.
Since its launch in 1998, the ISS has been painted as a symbol of science diplomacy—the practice of nations putting politics aside to use or do science for the common good. The station literally can’t function with just one country at the helm: Russians provide the propulsion that keeps the station in orbit, and Americans provide the electricity. This codependency and cooperation can be traced back to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The treaty, signed by both nations, was motivated by fears that the world’s superpowers would send nukes into space.
What started as a set of rules to avoid apocalypse evolved into a road map for a sort of scientific utopia. In addition to establishing outer space as a place to be used for “peaceful purposes,” the treaty provided for “freedom of scientific investigation in outer space,” and “international co-operation in such investigation.”
It was an ambitious vision, and after the Cold War, ISS became the proving ground.
From the first component’s launch into low orbit in 1998 through the station’s modular completion in 2012, there was reason for hope. “NASA and Roscosmos arguably had their greatest renaissance in terms of practical cooperation in lower earth orbit,” said Benjamin Schmitt, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and cofounder of the Space Diplomacy Lab at Duke University. But, of course, all good things must come to an end—and in this case, Dimitry Rogozin, then–director general of Roscosmos, Russia’s NASA equivalent, started ramping up threats against the U.S.-Russia partnership in what Schmitt called “histrionic fashion.”
It started with vague threats to pull out in 2014—Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea brought U.S. sanctions that were hurting Russia’s various tech sectors, including Roscosmos. It escalated into alarming but dubious claims in early 2022 that Russia would purposely allow the ISS to crash land into earth. But the most chilling moment came in November 2021, when a Russian missile exploded a Russian satellite unannounced, sending the seven ISS crewmembers to shelter in their transport pods. Two Russian cosmonauts were among them.
“It was a massive field of space debris,” said Schmitt. He suspects Russian’s goal was to deter Western support of Ukraine. “Like, ‘We can shoot down your satellites.’ ” It’s clear the Russians were becoming reckless with their scientific cooperative investment in the ISS. What is still unclear is why they endangered two of their own cosmonauts in the process.
Through the tumult, the ISS’s appeal as a sanctum for science and peace persisted. The people living inside the space station are still its strongest disciples. A few months ago, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov called the ISS “a symbol of friendship and cooperation” as he handed over command of the station to the American astronaut Thomas Washburn. “People have problems on Earth,” said Shkaplerov, “… on orbit we are one crew.”
Astronauts and cosmonauts on board the ISS are codependent. They have to drink each other’s recycled pee for hydration, and often mix it with flavored powders. This makes sense. Believing that your space station is safe from today’s politics requires drinking some sort of Kool-Aid.
What does this mean? Well, if ISS was ever a symbol of science diplomacy, it was never a particularly useful one. No place reachable by humans is unreachable by human politics, even when hermetically sealed. The world-shattering science-relevant problems on Earth today are inherently political and deserve a pragmatism that the ISS’s hand-holding ideals didn’t always allow for—or at least haven’t for a long time. This moment, then, allows for us to rethink the role of the ISS, and space exploration in general, in science diplomacy as a whole.
Science diplomacy extends beyond the glamour of space exploration, and importantly, beyond the superpowers of the U.S. and Russia that have long dominated it. Most of today’s pressing problems are hitting smaller and poor countries the hardest—but those same countries are also the ones who give me the most hope for both the future writ large and the future of science diplomacy.
The future is big enough for different kinds of international cooperation, adapted for different cultures and political landscapes, so humans can understand and steward nature for the common good. That is what my colleagues from six Persian Gulf countries and I recently argued in Science magazine: We need pragmatic science diplomacy that doesn’t whitewash the politics of today—or how they might change, for better or worse, tomorrow. “Post-conflict? The Persian Gulf may never be post-conflict!’” an Iraqi colleague once said to me, laughing. Her point was that this doesn’t mean we can’t have scientific cooperation.
Take, for example, the unraveling of our global ocean. As a marine scientist, I’ve had a front-row seat—and the view it not good. Almost 40 percent of the world’s fish stock are overfished. Shipping is making large swaths of the ocean noisy and toxic. Ocean heat waves are pushing animals to their limits. Climate change is reshuffling the deck of which ocean critters survive and where they go. Sea levels are rising faster than scientists once thought.
Because I’m American, I am more sheltered from the fallout of these impacts than my colleagues in the Global South, who have led the way in calling for more diplomacy around the oceans as climate change accelerates.
The ocean feeds the world and buoys communities from the depths of poverty. The United Nations estimates that fisheries and aquaculture provide 3 billion people with almost 20 percent of their animal protein each year. In West Africa, that number can reach 60 percent. The countries of the world that are most dependent on the ocean don’t have space programs. Many barely have marine science programs.
Cape Verde, for example, survives off fishing and ocean-related tourism. In June, I witnessed officials from this small African country come to Washington, D.C., to sign an agreement that now makes it easier for marine scientists from other, wealthier Atlantic states—like the U.S. and European Union—to help Cape Verde research emerging threats in its life-giving waters. The All-Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Alliance Declaration may not be as glamorous as the ISS. But it offers very real hope for richer nations helping poor nations under their waters. At the same time, countries around the world are currently finalizing a new U.N. treaty to better protect the high seas, creating the first legally binding framework to both stop exploitation and conserve ocean ecosystems.
Poorer countries are testing new models of diplomacy on their own terms, too. African nations—assisted by an organization co-founded by Nelson Mandela—have pushed the limits of conserving huge swaths of land and ocean in “peace parks.” Imagine two countries plagued by political tension protecting a common resource the size of Rhode Island. In areas ravaged by foreign illegal fishing, like the maritime border between South Africa and Mozambique, this work has carved out bright spots of ocean diplomacy and protected fish stocks, while making room for possible scenarios where the two countries don’t always get along. There’s even a marine peace park between North Korea and South Korea.
The future of diplomacy in space is uncertain. Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency are also key partners in the ISS, and astronauts from 18 countries have visited the station. NASA, meanwhile, is collaborating with private companies to eventually replace the ISS with commercial space stations, according to the Associated Press. What’s more, some skeptics argue that Russia’s recent announcement about leaving the ISS is purely politics—2024 is far off, and Russia may decide to stay part of the ISS operations after all.
But if Russia leaves, it’s OK to let our utopian, “here we are one” vision of science diplomacy die. Seeing far-flung places, like space, as safe from the messiness of politics is no longer helpful. If anything, the need for space diplomacy will only grow as nations become more reliant on satellite communications while also becoming more vulnerable when things go dark. As conflicts flare, we will become more inextricably linked on the ground to what’s happening in space. For that reason, space diplomacy might do well to learn from other forms of diplomacy that are built with the worst-case scenario in mind. “Anticipatory diplomacy” is one approach, said Schmitt: “It’s a framework where you’re basically trying to look over the horizon” and prepare for worst-case scenarios. It’s something climate diplomacy and pandemic diplomacy have done from the beginning. Emerging forms of ocean diplomacy are adopting it, too.
When we let go of our techno-idealism about outer space, as well as our bias toward the narratives built up by global superpowers, we open ourselves up to the pragmatism of really working together. There’s ocean decline, but also climate change, global health, and human rights. Space exploration may be a part of solving those problems. Indeed, research conducted on the ISS has helped with vaccine development, natural disaster monitoring, water quality assessment, and indoor air quality improvements, to name a few. But we need more sustainable, realistic frameworks to continue cooperation in space, and we also need to be investing much, much more in pragmatic scientific cooperation on Earth.
With or without Russia’s continued participation, the lights will eventually go off aboard ISS, sometime around 2031, when it will fall back to Earth and splash into the ocean. I hope, in that moment, a symbol for science diplomacy is not the giant hunk of metal but the ocean that caught it.