Orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes from nearly 250 miles up, the International Space Station (ISS) is as much a political achievement as a technological one. The ISS represents the largest peaceful cooperative program human beings have ever conceived and implemented, and it is the most politically complex space program since the space age began in 1957.
Led by the United States, the ISS program started in 1982, with assembly in space beginning in 1998 and the last planned module scheduled for launch this year. The program’s international partners -- space agencies in the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada -- have made a political commitment to coordinate on planning and operations until 2020 in what has become a genuine multinational and multilateral program.
From its conception to its realization, the ISS has been a scientific and technological project with political dynamics, and ISS partner countries continue to give the space station political support for a variety of reasons that bear examining. The ISS also has broader political implications beyond its partner countries, with the examples of Brazil and China being particularly noteworthy. Brazil committed in 1996 to cooperate on the ISS, but did not fulfill its commitment and suffered political consequences as a result. With regard to China, meanwhile, the ISS could play a role in the broader calculus of Sino-American strategic and cooperative relations.