Russia is talking about leaving NASA on the International Space Station. Although the news shocked many and inspired a flurry of headlines, the threat is neither new nor particularly threatening.
NASA and Russia’s agreement on the ISS is due for renewal in 2024. NASA has already committed to maintaining the station through 2030, but Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has been skeptical of the partnership for years. On Tuesday, the head of the agency issued an official-sounding statement on the matter to President Vladimir Putin.
“Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to withdraw from the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, the new director general of Roscosmos, told Putin in a meeting, according to The New York Times.
“I think that at this time we will begin to form the Russian orbital station,” he added. “Good,” Putin said.
While space enthusiasts wringed their hands, the exchange didn’t shock space policy wonks. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, whom Putin fired earlier this month, repeatedly made similar threats.
“This has been seen as coming for the last two or three years,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Insider, adding, “It’s nothing new.”
NASA officials told reporters that Russia had not notified them of any new decisions.
“We’ve seen this story many times before. Color me skeptical of any immediate changes,” Casey Dreier, senior space policy advisor at The Planetary Society, so on Twitter on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Kathy Leuders, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, told Reuters she had been told by Russian officials that they intended to continue collaborating on the ISS until they complete their own space station. In a Friday statement, translated by Google, Borisov predicted an “avalanche” of technical failures on the Russian segment of the ISS after 2024. At that point, it would be more economical to invest in a new Russian space station, he added.
“Whether it will be in the middle of 2024 or in 2025 – everything depends,” Borisov said.
When Russia leaves the ISS, it won’t necessarily be a disaster for NASA. The agency has been preparing to operate the station without Russia for nearly a decade, as relations between the two space powers strained.
“The Russian announcement is not a surprise, and reiterating their current commitment through 2024 is helpful for planning,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, said in a written statement shared with Insider. “However, what comes after 2024 is still very much unknown, and the real question is when will deep technical discussions begin for *how* the transition will be handled (rather than whether there will be a transition).”
NASA has been preparing for a hiatus from Roscosmos for nearly a decade
Roscosmos and NASA had a strained relationship from the beginning. Even as the two agencies were building the first parts of the ISS, NASA was making contingency plans. In the late 90s, Russia was on schedule to build the Zvezda Service Module, which was to be a core component of the station. NASA built a backup module in case Zvezda never arrived.
A decade later, NASA became dependent on Russian hardware. When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, the US could only fly its astronauts to and from the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
To reverse this dependence, the Obama administration began funding private development of human-grade spacecraft. The result, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, now regularly transports astronauts to and from the ISS.
NASA’s remaining reliance on Russia is aboard the ISS itself. The station was designed for interdependence: Russia’s side relies on solar panels in the western section for power, and the station cannot maintain its altitude without regular boosts from Russian Progress spacecraft, which fire their boosters to push the station a little higher about once per second. month.
NASA is learning how to do the “orbital reboost” maneuvers with the Cygnus spacecraft developed by contractor Northrop Grumman. It conducted a successful test of the maneuver in June, a week after an initial test attempt failed.
It is unclear what a transition to a Russia-free ISS might look like. According to Pace, the main challenges will be rebuilding the orbital, replacing Moscow’s ground support and figuring out what to do with Russia’s modules and other ISS hardware.
“I’m sure, without having any specific information, that the United States and its partners have thought through what can be done,” Logsdon said. Otherwise, they would be “abandoned from their duty,” he added.
The Roman alliance between the US and Russia has become increasingly strained
Over the years, the NASA-Roscosmos partnership has involved public spacewalks. In 2014, Russia announced that it would kick NASA off the ISS by 2020 in retaliation for US sanctions over the invasion of Crimea. The threat never materialized.
Last year, a Roscosmos official accused a NASA astronaut of having a mental breakdown and drilling a hole in a Soyuz spacecraft in 2018. NASA firmly denied the allegations.
In November, Russia launched a missile at one of its decommissioned satellites as a weapons test. The explosion scattered thousands of pieces of high-velocity debris through Earth’s orbit, forcing the ISS crew to retreat to their spacecraft in case they had to make an emergency exit, and drew condemnation from NASA.
Tensions escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine. Rogozin, then head of Roscosmos and known for his provocative tweets, got into strongly worded Twitter arguments with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, a NASA contractor. Rogozin even proposed that Russia may leave the ISS to crash into Earth.
Cosmonauts have displayed flags and images on the ISS supporting the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, prompting a rebuke from NASA officials.
The US and Russia plan to go their separate ways after the ISS
Beyond the ISS, American and Russian paths diverge. NASA funds the development of commercial space stations by three companies – Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman. The plan is to become a customer, rent a room and laboratory space at a railway station run by a private company.
Roscosmos says it is planning its own space station, but has not shared many details.
“You can take that with a grain of salt, given their overall financial situation,” Logsdon said.
Both NASA and Roscosmos aim to build new space stations on the moon, but not together.
NASA has established a set of agreements for the new era of lunar exploration, called the Artemis Agreement, which 20 other countries signed. Russia and China have not signed the agreements. Instead, they have said they plan to build their own base together on the surface of the moon.
“I think there will be international cooperation between like-minded countries, and the addition of Russia to the International Space Station will be seen as an artifact of the politics of a particular time, and not set a pattern for the future,” Logsdon said.
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