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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 2.1 (2004) 1-24

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The Political Context of Technology Transfer
NASA and the International Space Station

W. Henry Lambright and Agnes Gereben Schaefer

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest, most expensive, and most complex civilian international science and technology project in history. An orbiting scientific laboratory and potential manufacturing facility, ISS will be the size of a football field when finally completed. The project was launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and has been maintained by each of his successors. In 1984, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) projected a cost of $8 billion with completion a decade later. However, the cost to the United States thus far has been approximately $35 billion and the completion date is still some years away. With its long history, the space station has been shaped in turn by Cold War, post-Cold War, and globalization issues. Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Station is the involvement of 16 nations in its construction. As a U.S.-led, multinational project, it serves as a potential model (for both positive and negative lessons) for large-scale international research and development (R&D) projects in the early 21st century.

For those interested in the political context of technological development projects including technology transfer—the flow of hardware and techniques from one entity to another—ISS stands out. It illuminates virtually all issues associated with science and technology in the contemporary [End Page 1] era. The ISS has been a focus of debate since its inception. Domestic political forces pro and con have sought to influence its course; the Station has undergone several cost-cutting technical redesigns and survived numerous termination attempts. In addition to being influenced by domestic politics, the Station has also been affected heavily by international security concerns. The evolution of the ISS reveals much about how these external political forces can shape huge research and development projects. ISS also demonstrates the sometimes surprising ways that concerns about technology transfer contribute to the politics that shape the direction and pace of large projects.


This essay seeks to examine how political forces shaped ISS and the role that technology transfer questions have played in the debates that often surrounded the entire project. Politics sometimes has limited the opportunities for technology movements, and always has complicated the efforts to develop and manage the station. Whereas technology transfer, as an issue, has sometimes been obscured by larger concerns, it has been a fairly constant factor, one way or another, in decision making. Looking at the space station thus provides an opportunity to explore the role technology transfer issues can play in the outcome and direction of big technical projects with international dimensions. This should be seen as an exploratory essay, largely based on secondary sources, aiming to illuminate a terrain. This is not a definitive study of technology transfer and the space station. That history has yet to be written. Instead, this essay uses the space station as a vehicle for indicating the complexities of technology transfer in projects where huge domestic and international forces hold sway.

Among the questions examined here are these: Who have been the advocates and detractors of the space station? How have the international partners been recruited to the project despite concerns about controlling the transfer of apparently sensitive or special technologies? What has sustained the interest of domestic and international actors? Where does Russia fit into the history of the project? What strategies has NASA used along the way? How did technology transfer questions come into play?

To get at these questions, it is useful to track the history of ISS and how it has evolved over time as a technology development project. We suggest at least eight stages in the research and development process and a ninth of utilization. The first was an agenda-setting stage, when the space station appeared on the U.S. national policy agenda and stayed there. Relative permanence as an issue is...


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