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Partnerships: International Collaboration in Low-Earth Orbit and Beyond

This Agreement is a long term international co-operative framework on the basis of genuine partnership, for the detailed design, development, operation, and utilization of a permanently inhabited civil Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.

– Article I, The Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on Space Station Cooperation

International cooperation is the new norm in space. While International Space Station crewmembers have all been citizens of the 14 governments who signed the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on Space Station Cooperation in January 1998 – the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and ten member states of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) – the station, as of the summer of 2018, has hosted 227 visitors from 18 different countries. Experiments from more than 100 countries have been carried out on the ISS. According to NASA, more than 60 international space agencies increasingly work together in a broad range of space activities.

The IGA, and the memoranda of understanding that followed, established the cooperative framework for the construction and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS). It was a historic document, establishing one of the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted, but in many ways it can be seen not as the beginning of a new era in space exploration, but rather as a culmination of long-established working partnerships, some dating nearly to the beginning of the world’s space programs. The partner agencies of the ISS, and their essential contributions to long-term space exploration, include:


The Canadian Space Agency

Canadian upper atmospheric and space research dates to the 1950s, and its collaborations with both the American and European space programs date to the 1960s. The first satellite built by a country other than the United States or Soviet Union was Canada’s Alouette 1, launched by NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 1962. The success of Alouette 1 and ensuing U.S./Canadian satellite launches led NASA, in 1969, to invite Canada’s participation in the Space Shuttle Program. The first Canadian-built Shuttle Remote Manipulation System, or Canadarm, the robotic arm used to deploy and retrieve shuttle payloads, was delivered in 1981.

astronaut working on Quest Airlock ISS web

Janet L. Kavandi, STS-104 mission specialist, connects cables and hoses from the newly installed Quest Airlock to Unity Node 1. Other STS-104 and Expedition Two crewmembers are visible in the background working in the airlock. NASA photo

The first Canadian in space, astronaut Marc Garneau, served as a payload specialist aboard Challenger in October 1984. In 1999, astronaut Julie Payette became the first Canadian to board the ISS; the first Canadian to command the station, Chris Hadfield, took command of Expedition 35 in December 2012.

The first satellite built by a country other than the United States or Soviet Union was Canada’s Alouette 1, launched by NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 1962.

Canada’s critical contribution to the ISS is the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), a sophisticated robotics system used in the assembly, maintenance, and resupply of the ISS. A successor to Canadarm, the MSS consists of three components:

  • The Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), or Canadarm2, a 58-foot-long robotic arm with seven motorized joints, capable of handling payloads up to 256,000 pounds. Canadarm2 was used to berth and assemble ISS modules in space, and is regularly used to move supplies and equipment as well as to capture free-flying spacecraft and dock them to the ISS. Latching end effectors (LEEs, the “hands” at either end of Canadarm2) allow the arm to grip specialized fixtures on the station, spacecraft, and moveable components.
  • The Mobile Base System (MBS), a base platform for Canadarm2. The platform glides on rails mounted along the main truss of the ISS, allowing Canadarm2 to be used anywhere along the length of the station.
  • The Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), or Dextre, a smaller two-armed robot that can attach to Canadarm 2, the MBS, or to the ISS itself. Capable of using several tools on the end of either arm, Dextre is a multipurpose robot, capable of repairs, maintenance, or moving and installing replaceable units on the station’s exterior.

The MSS, along with the rest of Canada’s space program, is administered from Canadian Space Agency Headquarters at the John H. Chapman Space Centre in Longueuil, Quebec.


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Japan launched its space program in 1969, shortly before the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and by 1985 three of its astronauts had been selected for participation in the Space Shuttle Program. Mamoru Mohri, the first Japanese astronaut in space, was a payload specialist aboard the shuttle Endeavour in 1992. In 2009, Koichi Wakata became the first Japanese ISS crewmember, serving as a flight engineer on Expeditions 18, 19, and 20; he would later become the first Japanese commander of the ISS, when he took charge of Expedition 39 in March 2014.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA’s) highest-profile contribution to the ISS is the station’s largest single module: the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) or Kibo, Japanese for “Hope.” The JEM/Kibo, a complex of modules and parts, was launched over three Space Shuttle flights in 2007 and 2008. It consists of two research facilities: the 37-foot-long Pressurized Module, which provides a shirtsleeve research environment, and the Exposed Facility, a platform with 12 attachment points for experiment payloads, samples, and spare items. A pressurized Experiment Logistics Module sits atop the Pressurized Module and provides storage.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...