It is commonly believed that the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth at a height of 400 kilometers (250 miles), is above the conflicts occurring on Earth. In almost two decades of human habitation, the orbiting outpost has endured its fair share of political unrest. As a symbol of cooperation after the end of the cold war, the US-Russian relationship has been a resounding success. However, the journey has not always been smooth.
The decision made this week by Yury Borisov, the new head of Roscosmos, that Russia will leave the International Space Station after 2024 is merely the most recent example of the country’s unhappiness. In 2015, Roscosmos said that it would leave the collaboration in 2024, detach its modules, and utilize them to construct its outpost. A Russian space station is a top priority for the organization.
Fractures have already arisen in the collaboration, which also encompasses Europe, Canada, and Japan. As a protest against sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s then-vice prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, stated in 2014 that Russia would oppose plans to extend ISS operations past 2020. The threat was withdrawn, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year prompted more disruptions in space cooperation that appear much more difficult to mend.
The United States and Russia began negotiations in January to manage the International Space Station (ISS) until 2030, but Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted a new round of sanctions, some of which have a direct influence on the country’s space program.
In response to the penalties, Rogozin, who was fired from his position as chairman of Roscosmos last month, asserted that the station may collapse on an unsuspecting nation if the Russians did not maintain its altitude. (Rogozin has a reputation for making eccentric comments; he once suggested that NASA transport its astronauts to the International Space Station via trampoline.)
Current plans call for Nasa to abandon the ISS in 2031, deorbiting the aging structure on a trajectory that will deposit any re-entry debris in a distant region of the South Pacific Ocean. In the preceding years, the space station may further offer its airlocks to commercial industries, including tourism, sports, and filmmaking.
But due to the considerable uncertainty surrounding Russia’s commitment, space organizations working on the International Space Station must plan for the country’s exit while hope it remains. According to Dr. Pavel Luzin, Russian military and space analyst, Borisov stated “after 2024,” not “at the end of 2024,” leaving the door open for a lengthier involvement.
The former head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Dr. John Logsdon, stated that in light of Russia’s attitude toward the International Space Station (ISS), space agencies would be negligent if they had not established contingency preparations.
“It was hoped that Russia could be convinced to continue, but that was before Ukraine,” he explained. “With all the consequences of the Ukraine issue, it will be very difficult to revive west-Russia collaboration. The United States and its allies must take this issue seriously.”
If Russia leaves, the immediate objective would be to maintain the station’s orbit. This function is now performed by the Russian Progress spacecraft, which provides periodic boosts to the ISS to maintain its altitude. Northrop Grumman and SpaceX are candidates for taking over if Russia withdraws, but the task is not simple.
“It is not simple, but theoretically achievable,” Luzin added. The United States and its partners possess the required capabilities and technologies. A second alternative is to pay Russia to continue its station-keeping function.
Prof. Jan Worner, the former general director of the European Space Agency, expressed his “personal belief and hope” that Russia would continue beyond 2024. “Without the Russians, the station has no sense… If Borisov’s declaration becomes a reality, the ISS will cease to exist,” he added.
Worner continued, “With tremendous effort, it may be conceivable to maintain the ISS without Russia, but I doubt this will occur.” “I’ve always said that space is a bridge across turbulent water… The Russian government destroyed the bridge.”
Regardless of the outcome of the International Space Station, the next phase of human space exploration will include shifting partnerships. While the United States, Europe, Canada, and Japan have plans for the moon, including a lunar space station, Russia and China will collaborate on a separate lunar space station and moon base.
Future space partnerships between Russia and the West appear bleak, which could hinder its ambitions. “Russia shattered the foundation of these relationships,” stated Luzin. “The issue is that the Russian space program is impossible without western space collaboration.”
Russia will lose its human space program, its space exploration program, the Glonass [satellite navigation] system, and even its military space activities because all of these disciplines depend on components, industrial equipment, and technology from the United States, Europe, and Japan.
According to Logsdon, Russia’s dissatisfaction with the ISS offers an opportunity to consider whether the station has outlived its usefulness. “The United States might declare enough is enough, revise its intentions, and de-orbit early with the approval of its allies,” he said.
“It has been a symbolic success, but you cannot declare that every year it is a symbolic success for the first time. Why invest numerous billions of dollars to keep it operational is a reasonable question.”