The International Space Station, which circles the planet from 250 miles up, is often considered to be above the earthly conflicts that play out beneath. The orbiting outpost has weathered its share of political turmoil in more than two decades of hosting humans. As a symbol of post-cold war cooperation, the US-Russian partnership has been a clear success. But it has not always been a smooth ride.
This week’s announcement by Yury Borisov, the new head of Roscosmos, that Russia will quit the International Space Station after 2024, is only the latest expression of the country’s discontent. In 2015, Roscosmos said it would leave the partnership in 2024, unbolt its modules, and use them to build an outpost of its own. A Russian space station remains one of the agency’s prime ambitions.
Fractures in the partnership, which also includes Europe, Canada and Japan, have appeared before. In 2014, Russia’s then deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin said his country would reject plans to extend ISS operations beyond 2020, in protest against sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. The threat was dropped, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year sparked further upheaval for space cooperation that looks far harder to repair.
The US and Russia entered talks in January to operate the ISS until 2030, but Russia’s war in Ukraine triggered a fresh round of sanctions, with some having a direct impact on the country’s space programme. Responding to the sanctions, Rogozin, who was dismissed as the head of Roscosmos this month, claimed the station could crash on an unsuspecting nation without the Russians to keep it aloft. (Rogozin has a reputation for wayward remarks, once suggesting Nasa transport its astronauts to the ISS via a trampoline.)
Nasa’s current plan is to ditch the ISS in 2031, de-orbiting the aging structure on a trajectory that would send any remnants of re-entry into a remote region of the south Pacific Ocean. In the years beforehand, the station may further open its airlocks to commercial enterprises, for activities as broad as tourism, sports and moviemaking.
But the extreme uncertainty over Russia’s commitment means that space agencies working on the ISS must plan for the country’s departure while hoping it stays on. As Dr Pavel Luzin, a Russian military and space analyst, points out, Borisov said “after 2024”, not “at the end of 2024”, leaving the door open for longer involvement.
Dr John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that with Russia’s stance on the ISS, space agencies would be in dereliction of their duty if they had not made contingency plans. “It’s been a hope that Russia could be persuaded to continue, but that hope was pre-Ukraine,” he said. “With all the ramifications of the Ukraine situation, resuscitating west-Russia cooperation is going to be very challenging. The US and its partners have to take this seriously.”
If Russia quits, the immediate task would be keeping the station in orbit. That role is now fulfilled by the Russian Progress spacecraft, which gives the ISS periodic boosts to maintain its altitude. Northrop Grumman and SpaceX are contenders for taking over if Russia drops out, but it is not a trivial job.
“It is not easy, but technically it is possible,” said Luzin. “The US and other partners do have all necessary capabilities and technologies for this.” Another option is to pay Russia to carry on with its station-keeping service.
Prof Jan Wörner, the former director general of the European Space Agency, said his “personal belief and hope” was that Russia would continue beyond 2024. “The station without the Russians makes no sense … If Borisov’s announcement becomes reality, it is the end of the ISS,” he said.
“Maybe with some extraordinary effort it is possible to keep the ISS without Russia, but I doubt that this will be done,” Wörner added. “I always said: space is a bridge over troubled water… and the Russian regime broke the bridge.”
Whatever the fate of the International Space Station, the next step in human space exploration will see alliances shift. While the US, Europe, Canada and Japan have plans for the moon, including a lunar space station, Russia will partner with China for a separate lunar station and moon base.
For Russia, the prospect of future space collaborations with the west looks dim, and that could affect its aspirations. “Russia destroyed the basis for these relations,” said Luzin. “The problem is that the Russian space program is impossible without space cooperation with the west. Russia will lose its manned space programme, its space exploration programme, the Glonass [satellite navigation] system and even the military part of its space activity because all these fields depend on the American, European and Japan components, industrial equipment and technologies.”
According to Logsdon, Russia’s discontent with the ISS is an opportunity to think seriously about whether the station has had its time. “The US could, with agreement of its partners, say enough is enough and change its plans and de-orbit early,” he said. “It’s been a symbolic success, but you can’t say every year it’s newly a symbolic success. There’s a fair question as to why spend multiple billions of dollars to keep it in operation.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism