Will a facet of U.S.-Russia cooperation that has been built up since the end of the Cold War be lost once again?
Russia’s recent announcement to withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024 caused international anxiety.
Although the timing and legality of this withdrawal is unclear, the future of the ISS, which launched in 1998, has become uncertain.
Cooperative use of outer space allows for global communications, weather observation and GPS, all of which are indispensable to modern life. Hopefully, the U.S. and Russia, which have overwhelming power in these areas, will continue their efforts to maintain cooperative relations in space.
The ISS, which travels through space at an altitude of about 400 kilometers, is an international project in which Japan, Europe and Canada participate in addition to the U.S. and Russia. Of all the participating countries, only the U.S. and Russia employ astronauts. The U.S. retired its space shuttle program in 2011, giving Russia a monopoly on the role for over nine years. Russia also plays an important role in maintaining the altitude of the ISS and evacuating crews in an emergency.
Usually, both Russian and U.S. astronauts reside on the space station, and they frequently entrust one another with their lives. When tensions rose after Russia occupied parts of Ukraine eight years ago, Koichi Wakata, then captain of the space station, called for unity when he said, “We are at odds on the ground, but let’s show that we are still working together in space.”
If the cooperative effort of the ISS fails, not only will scientific experiments become impossible but also an avenue of communication and confidence building between the U.S. and Russia will be lost. Either outcome would be an immeasurable loss.
Russia has said it will develop an independent space station, but the feasibility of such an undertaking is unclear, primarily due to factors such as funding. China is proceeding with the construction of its own station, known as Tiangong, and there is a possibility that Russia will collaborate on the project. India is also embarking on its own plan.
Japan, the U.S. and Europe are currently competing against China and Russia for hegemony in outer space. The situation could become tense enough that the conflict extends down to Earth, with the possibility of India becoming involved as well. Space development and military affairs, such as rockets and satellites, are inextricably linked.
In Ukraine, public and private satellites play a major role in keeping track of invading Russian forces as well as securing Internet communication on the ground and verifying information. If these major world powers allow this conflict to get worse and bring their bare military logic into space, it would invite a chain of destruction and sabotage that would leave the entire world shaken.
The Outer Space Treaty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in the 1960s, stipulates “exploration and use for peaceful purposes” and “common benefit of all mankind.” Above all, we need to return to international cooperation based on this principle.
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