Science & Technology

What Is a Space Station Commander? Learn What A Space Station Commander Does

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 4 min read

On a space station, a space station commander is responsible for ensuring the day-to-day safety of their crew, of the space station itself, and the efficiency and efficacy of the scientific experiments taking place on board. Distinct from a space shuttle commander, a space station commander works in partnership with ground control centers and is the final voice in the onboard chain-of-command, and also the mission’s public face.


What Is a Space Station?

A space station is a habitable artificial satellite moving through low Earth orbit. Space stations offer a microgravity and space environment research laboratory where crew members experiment in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and other fields. These experiments are key to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the most prominent and famous space station. Predecessors to the ISS include Russia’s Salyut and Mir stations and the United States of America’s Skylab. Today, the ISS represents the coordinated efforts of Russia, the United States, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada. China also operates its own space station, the Tiangong.

International Space Station activities are launched and managed with international cooperation, with launch sites historically occuring in places like Kazakhstan. The international space station coordinates with various mission control centers distributed around the world, including U.S. NASA centers like the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, The Kennedy Space Center at the US Airforce base in Cape Canaveral,and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Currently, materials are transported via the SpaceX Dragon, and the next generation of people-moving space shuttles are being developed by Boeing (Starliner) and Lockhead Martin (Orion). Historically, space shuttle programs like the Shuttle Columbia, Shuttle Endeavor, and the Soyuz spaceship have transported people and supplies to space stations. Space shuttle missions are essential the resupply of space stations.

What Is a Space Station Commander?

A space station commander leads the crew aboard a space station, in coordination and consultation with the ground control center on Earth. The space station commander and ground control center work together to ensure the safety and scientific viability of the space station.

This includes supervising mission specialists and other on-board members of the astronaut corps in day-to-day operations, resupplies via space shuttles, spacewalks for repairs, and scientific experimentation.

Historically, ISS commanders have been Russian or NASA’s astronauts from the United States, often with military, particularly test pilots with navy and air force, training. But as an international space program, members of any participating space agency is eligible for command; Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, for example, famously served as the ISS commander.

Onboard a space station, the responsibilities of a space station commander vary based on the situation of the space mission.

  • Given the level of competence of astronauts on the ISS, the normal command structure on a day-to-day basis is flat and evenly distributed. Thus the role of the commander is generally subtle, developing the crew ahead of launch and making sure they are protected and feel fulfilled pursing their own personal objectives.
  • But in the case of a serious problem on board, the time for subtlety is over; the command structure moves from flat to vertical. Decisions need to be swift, clearly communicated and rapidly executed by the whole crew. Responding in an emergency is the ultimate test of the commander.

What Does a Space Station Commander Do?

A space station commander has several different responsibilities of varying importance. Some of the duties and tasks a space station commander must perform include:

  • Guaranteeing the survival of the crew
  • Ensuring the survival of the space station
  • Conducting as much science as possible for the space agencies.
  • Ensuring that when the mission was done, its participants would be eager to start over, and do it again.

In order to ensure the survival of the crew, it is imperative to build a sense of unity and also an environment in which your leadership is not questioned.

  • This will facilitate communication and camaraderie among a diverse group of international scientists who often do not speak the same native language, are on opposing sides of the political spectrum, and have very different lived experiences.
  • The commander must work to understand the people they lead—learning their language and culture as much as possible in the time available—and tirelessly build mutual understanding and respect. They have to be able to work constructively with not just the astronauts on board, but also with the flight directors and their teams in the mission control centers around the world.
  • When things are going right, a space station commander will have to give very few orders since the members of the crew are competent, responsible, and capable of self-direction.
  • When things go awry, the space station commander must take charge and, much like a military commander, their authority on board the space station is absolute. They must make life and death decisions to ensure the keep the crew and the station safe.

Additionally, space station commanders become the public face of space station missions. This drives international public engagement to ensure future generations are passionate about space exploration and experimentation. For example, astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield regularly posted on social media, documenting the mission’s highs and lows, and also regularly gave interviews to international newscasts.

Learn more about space exploration in former astronaut Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass.