To most people, the term “international space cooperation” involves national governments or their agencies, as exemplified by the International Space Station. But transnational commercial cooperation has been a driving force in space from the beginning of the Space Age. It has become more and more important as national budgets have tightened. Indeed, for over two decades, annual revenues from commercial space activities have far outstripped the total of government space budgets, both civil and military.

Governments have been slow to capitalize on this trend. There are still a number of initiatives that involve interaction among space agencies, with companies serving only as contractors. However, some recent roadblocks could seriously impede the pursuit of intergovernmental space programs. The most visible was the budget-motivated withdrawal of the U.S. from the ambitious European ExoMars missions and the subsequent financial difficulty the European Space Agency has experienced, even with the entry of the Russians.

Moreover, there are other, more subtle but perhaps more serious concerns. Most notable is the divergence of opinions on the next steps in human space exploration. The U.S.'s stated goals are a mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and a voyage to Mars in the 2030s. Europe and Russia have set their sights on extensive development of the Moon, as have Japan and India. Indeed, Russian space agency Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin has stated unequivocally that Russia should not be doing anything in the area of Mars or asteroid exploration. He wants to develop the Moon as a long-term permanent base from which to launch further exploration of the Solar System.

Another serious hindrance is the recent U.S. congressional edict that bars NASA from spending to cooperate with China in space. This is in direct conflict with the views of virtually all other spacefaring nations, all of which want to include China in such efforts. One more potential concern, though not as critical, is the difficulty in achieving long-term agreement among nations. It took more than five years to reach agreement on the space station. In contrast, transnational commercial cooperation is much easier. The primary goal is simply to make a profit and thereby increase the partners' ownership value.

The first successful instance of multinational commercial activity, and by far still the largest, was in delivering communications services via satellite. Revenues have far exceeded government space budgets worldwide for decades. Other areas of multinational commercial space development involve public-private partnerships. In position-location and navigation, governments developed and now operate the satellite networks, while the private sector did the same for all the ground equipment required for their commercial use. Similarly, the information from government-developed and -operated weather satellites, transmitted by commercial local, national and international news media, is of great financial significance to commercial industries worldwide.

In space transportation, at least three of the world's space launch providers are themselves multinational: Sea Launch, International Launch Services and Eurorockot. Moreover, among older launch providers, Arianespace is a French company whose Ariane stages are built by different nations; Europe's other two launchers, Soyuz and Vega, are designed and built by Russia and Italy, respectively, and all lift off from either South America or Kazakhstan.

The upper stage of India's Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle has been powered by a Russian rocket engine. The main stage of the U.S.'s Atlas, one of the country's two biggest legacy launchers, is boosted by a Russian RD-180 whose manufacture is now moving to Amross, a joint venture of Russia's Energomash and America's Pratt & Whitney. The large majority of the world's commercial satellites are launched by rockets designed and built in another nation, often from sites in third countries.

Some of the newest commercial space launchers involve multinational collaboration. Orbital Sciences Corp's new Antares rocket uses a Yuzhnoye (Ukraine) first stage powered by a Russian NK-33 engine modified by Aerojet (U.S.), and a Castor-30 upper stage built by ATK (U.S.). The Liberty launcher is a joint venture between ATK and Astrium (Europe). The U.K. company Virgin Galactic employs a spaceship and carrier aircraft designed, developed and tested by Scaled Composites (U.S.) and built by their joint venture, the Spacecraft Co. Virgin Galactic launch sites are in the U.S., Sweden and Curacao. The space tourism system planned by the Astrium division of Europe's EADS involves the U.K., Germany, France, Spain and Australia.

So, although international space cooperation may be in the doldrums, the vision of a global commercial space industry is still very much alive.