Testing Partnership: Columbia, the Space Station, and Crisis Response

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The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest and most complex international science and technology program in history. As such, it is a laboratory for a myriad of important policy issues. These include crisis decision-making. Begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, as Freedom, it was rechristened ISS in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Completed in 2011 under President Barack Obama, it continues to this day and is likely to extend to 2028 and beyond. The ISS represents an international partnership of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Roscosmos, the Russian space agency; the European Space Agency, itself a partnership of 11 nations; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; and the Canadian Space Agency. With NASA as the “managing partner,” the ISS coalition has endured many crises over its long history. One of the most severe came in 2003 when the Columbia Shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts aboard and grounding the shuttle fleet indefinitely. A crew was on the space station at the time. What was the partnership to do? The Columbia crisis might have torn the partnership apart. It did not and thus presents an opportunity to analyze critical factors in collaboration under stress. The following article uses a process approach to discuss key decisions in the crisis period, from 2003 through 2004. It points to a certain style of leadership as vital, along with several other factors, including interdependency, urgency, rapid decision-making, a plan of action, and political support. These and other elements held the partnership together and kept it going in a common direction. Given the fact that continuing space exploration carries grave risks and is likely to be done through international partnerships, it is highly desirable to draw policy lessons from the shuttle/ISS experience as a guide for the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101376
JournalSpace Policy
StatePublished - Aug 2020


  • Canadian Space Agency (CSA)
  • Collaboration
  • Columbia
  • Crisis management
  • Crisis response
  • European Space Agency (ESA)
  • International Space Station (ISS)
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
  • Leadership
  • National aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Partnership
  • Policy
  • Roscosmos
  • Space history
  • Space station
  • Strategic planning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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