As it is Good Relations Week here in Northern Ireland, we are covering the history of international relations within the context of space. More specifically; how the backdrop of global relations and newly formed Russia worked together with their former rival The United States of America to build the first International Space Station.

Video outlining the changing landscape of Europe throughout the Cold War period. Credit: Linked.

The Cold War

I’m too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disbanding of the USSR and the reformation of Russia as a country, however I can understand the immeasurable significance. Our current political landscape is still marred by the backdrop of a war in which the two antagonists never physically fought. If the current US President’s staff were investigated for election fraud in conjunction with Russian authorities 28 years after the Cold War ended, then the tension just a few short years after the conflict was over would have been something else entirely. Roughly 106 different conflicts, coup d’états, revolutions and guerrilla warfare spanning 44 years came to a close in 1991 with the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the lifting of the iron curtain that had fractured Germany into a war zone of ideology.

The Space Race

“What has this got to do with space?!” I hear you cry. Well, throughout The USA and USSR were in intent on besting each other to demonstrate just how well each of their nations functioned with their respective economic systems. How they did this? The Space Race; a decades long advancement in technology to see who could first put boots on the moon. The USA and USSR had a lot going for them; the two superpowers had secured important tools allowing them to advance their aerospace projects. The USA accepted former Nazi Luftwaffe engineers into their aerospace research initiative, soon to be known as The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Soviets didn’t have the engineers themselves but the parts of Germany they occupied post-WW2 contained the factories, technology and documents needed to produce spacecraft. Each superpower had one half of the space race puzzle that Nazi Germany has already begun. Starting launch sequence in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Despite its purely political motivation, The Space Race lead to the fastest pace of space travel advancement the world had ever seen.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was a Russian to the dismay of Americans. Image source: NASA

Yuri Gagarin was the first man to complete an earth orbit on 12th April 1961. He was from the USSR and this was a fantastic win for their side of the race. Not even a month later, on the 5th of May 1961, The Americans quickly put Alan Shepard into orbit. The USSR had thrown the first punch in this round of Space Race, but the real prize was soon made clear: the moon. 8 years later, after numerous goal posts along the way of aerospace achievement, the USA put boots on the moon on 16th July 1969. This ended the space race; this was as far as anyone could go from earth for now and the USA had won.

Image of Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon on the first moon landing mission, Apollo 11. (Image credit: Neil Armstrong/NASA)

Besides moon missions, there was one other area close to earth to invest in; low earth orbit. An ideal outcome of research here would result in some kind of base for cosmonauts and astronauts to work from; like a space station.


Image of Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)
The First Space Station: Mir (Image credit: NASA)

Mir (Мир), translation: peace, was the first modular space station. It was launched by the USSR in 1986 following the success of the world’s first space station program; the USSR’s Salyut Programme. It had the largest mass of any satellite humans had put into orbit, only succeeded by the ISS in years to come. Mir functioned as a research site for experiments in micro-gravity; it was important for longer term exploration of space to see how biology would interact with this lack of gravity. Importantly, it acted as further inspiration for the world, and especially the USA to further its space station efforts. Mir functioned well; housing 28 crews over its lifetime, surviving the fall of the USSR and the rise of Russia and allowing for the beginnings of international collaboration. The EO-10 crew that launched 2nd October 1991 as Soviets returned to earth 25th March 1992 as Russians! From this period onward communication between the new Russian President Yeltsin and President H. W. Bush of The United States improved to the point of sharing Mir in the latter years (the USA hadn’t been in the space station game since SkyLab in 1979). Continued use and sharing of Mir lead to the vision for the construction a new, larger space station: an international one.

The International Space Station

Despite the decades of stand-off between these two nations, The USA and newly formed Russia came together to build The International Space Station. The USA had the idea in the works for decades at this point, however Russia as their key partner in the endeavor would have been unthinkable even a few years previous. Beginning in the mid 1990s the US began manufacturing large modules for the ISS, namely Destiny, Unity and the truss structure to support the station. The Russians began by reusing parts from Mir 2 that had never been launched, as well as another module; Zarya. The European Space Agency (made up of The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy) contributed modules too; Columbus, Harmony, Tranquility, Cupola and The Leonardo MPLM. The Japanese JAXA contributed the Kibo module and the Canadian Space Agency manufactured the all important mobile servicing arm.

ISS labelled diagram. Credit: ResearchGate

As you can see, the complexity of this station would be enough to contend with on earth. However it had to be assembled in space. This began in November 1998; the Russian modules were the first to be assembled and then 1000s of parts were added half robotically and half by way of astronaut space walk over the next year. The beta-angle of the ISS had to be considered at all times during construction.

The ISS remained uninhabited for 2 years until Expedition 1 in November 2000 docked for the first long-haul stay on the ISS. The mission was comprised of 1 American and 2 Russians and was essentially a busy, unpacking of equipment and really setting up the station for inhabitants. From this point on the ISS has never been unmanned. Assembly continued, interrupted from 2003 – 2006 due to the Columbia Disaster, and continues to this day. In fact, Russia is adding another research module in 2020!

The ISS 59th Crew. Credit: NASA

As the crew picture above demonstrates, the ISS has fostered international cooperation like nothing else before it. To think that the forces behind the wall in Berlin would put aside their seemingly insurmountable differences to reach out into the cosmos would have seemed like a romantic vision from a novel. Russians and Americans working side by side in space in a station built by nations from across the globe is something many of take for granted, but its success cannot be understated.


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