For decades, space exploration wasn’t just about science but national prestige. The US and the former Soviet Union were engaged in the Space Race. Today, they are working together.
NASA and the Russia’s federal space agency, Roscosmos, are key partners at the International Space Station (ISS). They work alongside the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency to run and equip the station while conducting medical and scientific experiment.
Since the US grounded its shuttle program last year, NASA's relationship with Roscosmos has become more significant. But the ISS represents more than that, says Rafael Grau, NASA's external integration manager for the ISS.
"[If] you look at the space station, it's the largest peace time effort with the most nations in the recorded history of mankind," he told Deutsche Welle.
A history of working together
The ISS isn’t the first combined project by the two nations. The US and the former Soviet Union have worked together in space since 1972 when the two countries were trying to improve relations.
"You know even in the Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War and the Space Race, we had always cooperated with each other like the Soyuz-Apollo project," says Sergei Saveliev, deputy head of RosCosmos.
In that project, the American Apollo vehicle attached itself to the Soviet Soyuz craft to allow experiments connected to a simulated solar eclipse. The crew captains shook hands in space.
Less secrecy, more sharing
Today, launches take place at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, once a closed and secretive Soviet city. In late December a new crew, Canadian Chris Hadfield will head to space.
"I think the [International] Space Station is a fantastic technical achievement. But the fact that it is international and is being done that way is what gives it great historical significance," he told DW.
The countries conduct separate experiments, but work closely together in maintaining and repairing the space station. One of the key reasons to collaborate is the huge expenses involved.
"This allows us all to reduce costs, reduce terms and improve the quality of work," says RosCosmos' Sergei Saveliev.
Roles on the space station are determined by the amount of money and services that are contributed by each country and by their areas of interest, Chris Hadfield explains.
"It's really critical that we don't just go for the experience or don't just go because of where it leads us in the future, but to incrementally and continuously milk everything we can out of the experience," he says.
But the countries all have their own approaches when it comes to research.
"We all have our cultural bias that affects how we solve problems, how we prioritize problems so getting through learning how to communicate with each other what we consider important, what we think is the correct approach to solving those problems," Hadfield says.
The Russians get on with the job of getting to and from the space station – focusing more on the hardware and the equipment, he says.
But the Japanese are prepared to take a more abstract view – even conducting programs that focus on the beauty of space and its artistic merits.
The bigger challenge is in the cultural differences, according to NASA's Rafael Grau, who deals with external integration issues at the ISS.
Space research could shed more light on the body
Prolonged space travel tests the body's physical and psychological capabilities. And the data collected can shed more light on aging, disease and trauma.
The experiments done on the ISS and on other space craft over the past decades have already assisted in research and treatments for osteoporosis and asthma. Future projects are likely to try to measure climate change - looking at coastal patterns and monitoring thunderstorm activity.
This kind of work benefits everyone, says NASA's Rafael Grau.
"It's those countries that have that long term view that will reap the benefits of trying to live in the harsh environment that space is creating,” he says.
Despite the differences in approaches, Russia, the US and the other ISS are pushing to extend the life of the space station agreements well past the current deadline of 2020.
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