“We will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made,” the space agency chief Yuri Borisov said.
Russian officials have discussed leaving the project since at least 2021, citing aging equipment and growing safety risks. The countries involved in the ISS agreed to use the station until 2024 and NASA plans to use the station until 2030.
But the ongoing rift between Moscow and Washington over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a barrage of economic restrictions seem to have accelerated the pullout. Last month, the previous head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said that talks about Russian involvement after 2024 are possible only if the U.S. sanctions against the Russian space industry and other sectors of economy are lifted.
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Shortly after the Russian troops entered Ukraine in February, President Biden imposed new sanctions against Russia that were intended to “degrade” the country’s space program.
“We estimate that we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports. That will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” Biden said at the time.
In response to sanctions, Rogozin, known for his retorts and a years-long snide Twitter feud with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, threatened that Russia would allow the station to crash into Earth.
“There [is a] the possibility of a 500-ton structure falling on India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?” Rogozin said then.
The two sections of the station run by NASA and Roscosmos are interdependent, and it is unclear whether the ISS can be sustained with one side quitting the project. Russia is responsible for the space station’s critical propulsion control systems, which keep the ISS in the correct orbit as the Earth’s gravity slowly pulls it toward the atmosphere. The U.S. segment is responsible for the power supply.
Roscosmos under Rogozin also stirred controversy when it posted photos of its three cosmonauts holding the flags of two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, where Russia launched its invasion. The post marked the capture of Lysychansk, the last city in what pro-Russian separatists call the Luhansk People’s Republic to fall to Russian forces, and was captioned “a liberation day to celebrate both on Earth and in space.”
The stunt with the flags and Russia’s apparent attempts to use the project as a bargaining chip in efforts to alleviate sanctions have been condemned by NASA.
“NASA strongly rebukes [Russia] using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes,” the agency said in early July.
But NASA has gone to great lengths to keep the cooperation afloat and has attempted to keep the war from affecting the ISS partnership, pledging earlier this year that the joint work would continue.
“Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts are all very professional,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on June 15 during a joint news conference with his European Space Agency counterpart.
“Despite the tragedies that are occurring in Ukraine by President Putin, the fact is that the international partnership is solid when it comes to the civilian space program.”
For a while, that effort seemed to have been paying off. It was only July 15 that NASA and Roscosmos announced they’d reached an agreement to launch one another’s space travelers to the station, with Americans riding aboard Russian rockets and Russian cosmonauts traveling aboard SpaceX vehicles. The SpaceX launch was announced for sometime after Sept. 29.
In late March, a U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts safely landed in Kazakhstan after leaving the space station aboard the same capsule.
The ISS, the size of a football field, was launched in 1998 and has since been a staple of post-Cold War international cooperation involving Moscow that survived for decades as the relationship between the U.S. and Russia soured. Its demise will likely spawn new stations in the coming decade as NASA actively involves private space companies and has given seed funding to at least four concept stations.
Late last year NASA awarded contracts to three companies to develop commercial space stations: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, in partnership with Sierra Space; Nanoracks, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Axiom Space is also developing a private station of its own and has plans to launch the first segment by 2024.
But it’s not clear when those stations would become operational. And some fear there will be a gap between when they are ready and when the ISS is decommissioned, leaving the United States without a place to go in Earth orbit.
Meanwhile, China has begun assembly its space station, and launched a second laboratory module on Sunday.
Russia has set sights on launching its own project, but Roscosmos has for years struggled financially, and the cash inflow has been hindered after the U.S. shifted from using Soyuz rockets to lift their astronauts to the station and turned to SpaceX for these services.
In his Tuesday announcement, Borisov admitted that the Russian space industry is struggling as it also needs to replace many foreign technologies that are no longer available due to sanctions.
“I see my main task, together with my colleagues, is not to lower, but to raise the bar, and, first of all, to provide the Russian economy with the necessary space services,” Borisov said. “This is navigation, communication [services], data transmission, meteorological, geodetic information, and so on.”
Russian state media previously reported that Rocket and Space Corporation Energia is preparing a draft design of the station, dubbed Russian Orbital Service Station, that should be completed in the third quarter of 2023.
NASA officials on Tuesday said, however, that they had not been notified of Russia’s intentions and that they are planning to use the station until 2030 at least, when commercial space stations are expected to come online to replace the aging ISS.
NASA and the European Space Agency did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. But speaking at a conference about the research and development done on the station, Robyn Gatens, NASA’s director of the ISS, said that NASA did not want to see the partnership come to an end. “We want to continue together as a partnership to operate the space station,” she said. “I think the Russians, just like us, are thinking ahead to what’s next for them. And as we’re planning for a transition after 2030 to commercially owned and operated space stations in low Earth orbit … they’re thinking about a transition as well.”
She added that NASA had not “received any official word” from Russia, but that “we’ll be talking more about their plan moving forward.”
If Russia were to pull out of the station, it would be a complicated process logistically and diplomatically. The agreement that governs the space station says that while partners may withdraw at any time, they must give “at least one year’s prior written notice.”
And while Russia’s statement said it would withdraw after 2024, it was unclear exactly when that might happen.
NASA has repeatedly stressed that its astronauts and Russian cosmonauts aboard the station continue to work side-by-side, as they have for years. And despite the turmoil on the ground, they have shown real signs of friendship. Earlier this year when cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov handed over command of the station to NASA’s Thomas Marshburn, he said that while, “people have problems on Earth … on orbit we are one crew.” Speaking in English, he called the space station “a symbol of friendship and cooperation and like a symbol of the future of exploration in space.”
He thanked “my space brothers and sisters” and praised Marshburn, saying he would be a “professional commander of ISS.
But it hasn’t always gone smoothly in space. In November, Nelson criticized Russia for conducting a missile test against a satellite that created an estimated 1,500 pieces of space debris, some of which intersected the space station’s orbit. Then came the flag incident earlier this month. Nelson issued another rebuke, calling displaying the flag “fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function.”