The Final Frontier: Space Exploration and Politics

Jeremy Blackburn

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1

It is now fourteen years after Ronald Reagan’s infamous ‘Star Wars’ speech, a speech that forecast American space superiority above all other world powers, based on the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).  Yet it was this program’s less known, and now warped, progeny which has just began its gestation period.  American and Russian engineers will this month begin work on assembling the largest orbiting structure to date, so huge it will be seen clearly from Earth.

It will weigh 400 tonnes, cover the area of two football pitches and act as permanent laboratory/living quarters for six scientists, as it orbits at 18,00Omph.  Its assembly will be thei most dangerous and corn-‘ plex space operation as yet attempted, by any nation.’ Its name is ‘Space Station Alpha’. The base’s life began in 1984, when Reagan commissioned the construction of the sublimely entitled ‘Freedom Station’, hoping to have it built by 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World.  This then, would have been a monument, a science station and military hardware all rolled into one, yet Reagan had said of SDI, that the USA did not “seek military superiority or political advantage”. ‘Freedom’ would have been America’s greatest bargaining chip in the Cold War, a means to dominate vast tracts of the globe.  Strategists conceived SDI as the foundation for transition from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured survival, and in a sense, survival, both of itself and of planet Earth, will be Alpha’s priorities as a science station.  What would have been a totem of American military and technological power, is now an International Space Station (ISS); this has alleviated budget problems for the US and allowed European countries, as well as Russia, into a now international project.

Nevertheless, the plans for the base have been revised half a dozen times and an estimated £7 billion has been spent on design work, unsurprisingly it has been called a waste of money, a scientific conceit and an American diplomatic tool.  NASA is still finding Congress unwilling to fund any further increase in the budget of the ISS even though it is necessary, due to the incapability’s of the Russian PKA in producing the vital primary modules.  The Clinton Administration is engaged in a drive to make space fashionable again, especially since the 1986 Cape Canaveral explosion.  The fact that it is a diplomatic and scientific bargaining chip, is a massive benefit to the United States government, which would perhaps like to mitigate its overbearing superpower status in the post-Cold War by appearing the benevolent creator of the ISS.  At 7pm on 30thOctober, as you may know, the shuttle Discovery carried John Glenn into orbit.  The Senator suggested himself as a geriatric guinea pig, well aware of the publicity it would entail.  Space may become a totem for Clinton’s Presidency, just as it was for Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ in the distant 1960’s; this is just ‘one more step’ in the politicisation of space by a government that wishes to divert attention from domestic troubles.  Perhaps this is unfair, the move into space which the ISS represents, is far more productive than its use for orbital weapons or spy satellites, and the possible dividends of research are far-reaching to say the least.

The International Space Station Project in Perspective

The project to build the ISS is the largest scientific co-operative program in space history, drawing on the resources of 16 member nations, the leaders of which are the USA (NASA), Russia (PKA), Japan (NASDA), Canada (CSA), and the European Union acting through ESA (investing countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).  NASA estimates it will take five years to assemble ‘Alpha’ in orbit.  It will require 27 shuttle flights, 44 Russian manned and unmanned flights, one Japanese unmanned flight and one European flight.  This is an enterprise that countries can ill afford not to be members of.  The station is taking a lead in space affairs, the first step to even greater aerospace projects by humankind in the future: it will provide a unique laboratory free of gravity, able to share its findings with all members, it will enable the construction of new commercial industries, but most of all, it will provide a unique platform for understanding Earth and as an experiment for co-operation by belligerent nations.

This no doubt sounds too good to be true.  That’s because it is.  The plan for an originally American control platform for SDI’s directed energy weapons, left on a dusty shelf in the Pentagon due to the expense of Reagan’s ‘Star, Wars’ program, has been brought back to life as an. international science station, with the intention of including as many nations as possible, so as to spread the costs.  This is hardly a promising start to a cooperative venture, the war-horse being harnessed to the plough.  Even less appealing is the knowledge that the USA would not have resurrected these plans if it had not been for the fact that several other nations were looking into this possibility: the Japanese could conceivably have had a station up and working by 2001-2002: the Chinese are beginning to look into orbital craft, indeed they have already taken over a share of the satellite placement market previously occupied by the European Space Agency until its string of failed Ariane missions: while the possible replacement or refurbishment of the former USSR’s ‘Mir’ station was a consistent embarrassment to the nation who put the first man on the Moon.

Within the last month, the Space Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences has recommended the retention of ‘Mir’ as a working station, believing that Russia has little capital interest in the ISS, and cannot hope therefore, to receive an equal share in scientific research conducted.  This possible renewal of ‘Mir’ as a viable space structure is not as far fetched as it may seem, two working copies of Mir exist in decommissioned Russian Cosmodromes, along with the necessary internal upgrades.  Russia still retains the hardware to restart a ‘spacerace’, including its computer controlled ‘Buran’ class shuttles; restarting the Russian space program has been supported by its parliament voting for a refurbishment to allow ‘Mir’ to survive a further 5 years.  The idea of two stations in orbit, each effectively owned by the two sides that were once engaged in the Cold War, would be a vindication of Reagan’s predictions.  However, in the cold starlight of reality, Russia would not be engaged in the ISS if it could itself support a space programme, and therefore it is unlikely that Yeltsin will allow the costs of a ‘Mir’ rejuvenation to go ahead so long as his economy remains in desperate turmoil.

Most importantly, the first nation to have a space station would probably be the first nation to look at Lunar colonisation, and the existence of such a settlement would be of almost unspeakable strategic and political importance to the world, more specifically the United States of America.  The end of the Cold war did not mean that considerations of strategic importance went away, and I am sure that its respective committee in the American government has been looking into the issues of space, that is to say Earth orbit and the Moon.

The Project in Action

On November 20th 1998, a Russian Proton rocket will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with 20 tons of pressurised cargo aboard – Zarya will be a canister more than 41ft long and 13ft in diameter, which will form the basis for the assembly to come.  This will be the powerhouse and eventual storeroom of the station.  In January of 1999 it will be joined by the American Unity, which will be a corridor and airlock section, forming the core structure of the station.  In April, the Russians will launch a shuttle carrying a service module, in which will be living quarters, life support systems and rocket thrusters to adjust its orbit.  In July of 2000, an American shuttle will deliver the Soyuz vehicle, designed as an emergency escape craft, as well as the first three inhabitants of ‘Alpha’, Flight 2R consisting of Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev (Cosmonaut), Soyuz Commander Yuri Gidzenko (Cosmonaut; Col.  Russian Air Force) and ISS Commanding Officer Bill Shepherd (Astronaut; Capt.  USN).  This being Expedition No.1, there will be four expeditions, replacing crews and delivering further assembly parts.  Flight 2R will flight test the station and perform critical assembly tasks, such as expanding the station when delivery is taken of the first truss-based U.S. solar arrays, the U.S. Laboratory module and the station’s primary robotic arm, built by Canada.

Astronauts and Cosmonauts working in teams of two will have to spend six hours at a time connecting cables, piping, bolts and structural supports; these space walks will total at least 1,729 hours – all the space walks taken by Russian and US pilots in 37 years of manned flight do not add up to this.  Experts have calculated that there is a worse than 50-50 chance of serious catastrophe, as David Webb, a member of President Reagan’s National Commission on Space says, “The people who build the station will be putting their lives on the line.  Not only facing the ever present dangers of space, but also their life support systems must work first time, every time, otherwise they will die, just the same”: (The Guardian).  This may seem valiant in the cause of humanity or science as a beginning to further exploration, but as the start of the private space firms drive to have hotels and factories around ‘Alpha’, it is abhorrent.  The simple truth is that we are still making primitive headway, yet this construction will give political and strategic superiority to the USA first and foremost, and then those lucky enough to have been included in the process.

Space’s Politics

The politics of space are in themselves a series of unknown disputes, a situation leading to actual agreements or principles being thin on the ground to say the least.  At present, only the 1967 Outer Space Treaty exists, forbidding the placing in orbit of weapons of mass destruction, but this was created solely to prevent the ‘arms race escalating into space’, its remit is nothing larger.  Though the treaty was updated in 1979, existing space structures, such as satellites, telescopes and ‘comsats’, do not contravene the code.  The reality of the 1980’s was that SDI, in a sense could have contravened, had directed energy weapons been capable of use against terrestrial targets; but, ‘Star Wars’ funds were redirected into furthering the American satellite network, so enabling it to have a veritable monopoly of early warning, reconnaissance, communications and targeting information within NATO.  The realisation of an American space monopoly in the last two decades, by successively France, Germany and Britain, led to a serious discussion of the Western European Union creating military space arm under the guidance of the civilian European Space Agency – Mitterand and Kohl believed that a small-scale EDI (European Defence Initiative), set-up to deal with a tactical rather than strategic nuclear threat, could be a viable proposition, but more likely once a European state existed.  The incentives of commercial ‘spin-offs’ has kept research on EDI going, especially in France, and to a degree, Britain; this research had enabled ESA to have a relative monopoly on commercial t satellite placement until recent launches went wrong.  SDI, and indeed nearly all American space expansion, has been viewed dubiously by Europe, especially when the USA withheld information on Bosnia, gathered by its satellite network, from its Nato allies about to go in on the ground.

The former USSR capably took the lead in the initial phase of  exploration.  Effectively, the USSR rejected the 1967 Treaty and its articles concerning the use of international law in space, especially the belief in the UN being the arbitrator of space placement ‘Mir’ is the prime example of the Soviet belief in the benefits space can confer.  Russia has fallen from such heady heights to become the an unequal member in the ISS construction programme, failing to supply parts on time, falling into organisational chaos and consistently clamouring for more American financial aid.  America’s present status and its past experience has guaranteed it its position in the lead of the ISS, subordinating European space efforts, the efforts of the Japanese and taking pity on Russia.  Since the ‘Mars Rover’ project, it has only been a question of time till America took the substantial step of beginning a fullscale space programme.  The creation of space law, even though dominated by commercial interests at present, has been concerned with the strategic implications of a lunar base, off-Earth control systems and the placement of weapons since the 1967 treaty; after 30 years we will now see the creation of a station which must adhere to these once unknown guidelines.  The UN may well have to prepare itself for a boom in the space industry and in the placement of orbital objects sparked by ‘Alpha’s’ creation after the year 2000 – that will be the beginning of the first ‘space-age’.

An Evaluation of Space Station ‘Alpha’

The heritage of orbiting space structures does not lend confidence to the observer of the present process, regardless of its co-operative nature; the American platform‘Skylab’ fell to Earth in 1979, the Russian station ‘Mir’ was built to last five years and has now orbited for twelve, despite its regular fires, electricity failures, blocked lavatories and collisions – next year it will probably be abandoned, the first relic in space.

Space has been an essentially military sphere for too long, ‘Alpha’ may well break this tradition, but many observers fear that the industrialisation of space may result in vehicles carrying the sponsorship of Ronald McDonald as opposed to NASA.  Hopefully in the future, we may be able to bring a diplomatic maturity to space politics, for to take terrestrial grievances out into the stars may yet be humanity’s greatest crime.

Sooner or later, very possibly in our life times, we will see the creation of  Moon, and then Mars, colonies; this will be a time of great ruction in politics, as theories are adapted and we search for solutions to new governmental problems. I, for one, look forward to seeing this.

The International Space Station will be the first orbiting craft to provide a gateway to new frontiers, a craft which will partially fulfil the need of men and women to explore the unknown, to understand space and apply that knowledge to terrestrial problems.  It can serve as a symbol of unity or of disunity, it may crash from the stars, it may become obsolete as events pass it by, or it may simply have to wait another 14 years if construction schedules fall any more behind; the fact that it has been used as a diplomatic tool by the Americans cannot sully its significance in history.

At the earliest ‘Alpha’, or whatever is its final name, will be open for business by the year 2004.  A lot could happen before then.


  1. The Russians have consistently disagreed with any name suggested for the station, especially ‘Alpha’, as they believe it refers to the Greek basis of Western Civilisation, and thus discriminates against them.

2        John Glenn was of course, the first American in space as an astronaut on the Atlas Rocket project during 1962, and more recently, a major political force in advising for further space investment.