Russia is talking about abandoning NASA on the International Space Station. While the news has shocked many and inspired a flurry of headlines, the threat is neither new nor particularly threatening.
The agreement between NASA and Russia on the ISS is due to expire in 2024. NASA has already pledged to keep the station until 2030, but the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has had doubts about the partnership for years. On Tuesday, the leader of the agency released an official 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 general manager of Roscosmos, told Putin in a meeting, according to The New. York Times.
“I think at this point we will start forming the Russian orbital station,” he added. “Well,” Putin said.
As space enthusiasts wrung their hands, the exchange didn’t shock space policy fanatics. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, whom Putin fired earlier this month, has repeatedly made similar threats.
“For the past two or three years it’s been seen like this,” John Logsdon, the founder of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute, told Insider, adding, “It’s nothing new.”
NASA officials told reporters that Russia had not informed them of 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, She said on Twitter Tuesday.
On Wednesday, NASA’s head of human space flight Kathy Leuders told Reuters she had received the news from Russian officials that they intended to continue collaborating on the ISS until their space station is completed. In a statement on Friday, 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 cheaper to invest in a new Russian space station, he added.
“Whether it’s mid-2024 or 2025, it all 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 have frayed.
“The Russian announcement is not a surprise and reiterating their current commitment through 2024 is useful for planning,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, in a written statement shared with Insider. “What will come after 2024 is still very unknown, however, and the real question is when will in-depth technical discussions begin about * 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 have had a tense partnership from the start. Although the two agencies were building the first parts of the ISS, NASA was preparing contingency plans. In the late 1990s, Russia was lagging behind in the construction of the Zvezda service module which would be a key component of the station. NASA built a backup module in case Zvezda never showed up.
A decade later, NASA became addicted to Russian hardware. When the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, the United States could only fly its astronauts to and from the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
To reduce this dependence, the Obama administration has begun funding the private development of spacecraft classified as human. The result, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, now regularly ferries astronauts to and from the ISS.
NASA’s remaining dependence on Russia is aboard the ISS itself. The station was built for interdependence: the Russian side relies on solar panels in the western section for power, and the station cannot maintain altitude without regular increases by Russian Progress ships, which activate their boosters to propel the station a little higher about once every month.
NASA is learning how to perform those “orbital reboot” maneuvers with the Cygnus spacecraft developed by its contractor Northrop Grumman. He successfully conducted a test of the maneuver in June, a week after a first test attempt failed.
It is unclear how a transition to an ISS without Russia could be. According to Pace, the main challenges would be orbital reboosts, replacing Moscow’s ground support, and figuring out what to do with Russian modules and other ISS hardware.
“I am confident, without having any specific information, that the United States and its partners have thought about what could be done,” said Logsdon. Otherwise, they would be “left to their duty,” she added.
The US-Russia space alliance has become increasingly tense
Over the years, the NASA-Roscosmos partnership has involved public squabbles. In 2014, Russia announced it would kick NASA out of the ISS by 2020 in retaliation for US sanctions on the invasion of Crimea. The threat never materialized.
Last year, a Roscosmos official accused a NASA astronaut of having a nervous breakdown and puncturing a Soyuz spacecraft in 2018. NASA has firmly denied the allegations.
In November, Russia launched a missile at one of its deceased satellites as a weapons test. The blast dispersed thousands of debris fragments at high speed through Earth’s orbit, forcing the ISS crew to retreat to their spaceships in case they were to make an emergency exit and attracting NASA condemnation.
Tensions escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine. Rogozin, then at the helm of Roscosmos and known for his fiery tweets, had discussions on Twitter with strong words with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, a NASA contractor. Rogozin too suggested that Russia could abandon the ISS to crash into Earth.
The cosmonauts displayed flags and images on the ISS in support of the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, calling for a rebuke from NASA officials.
The US and Russia plan to follow their own path after the ISS
Beyond the ISS, the paths of the United States and Russia diverge. NASA is funding the development of commercial space stations by three companies: Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman. His plan is to become a customer by renting a room and laboratory space on an orbiting station run by a private company.
Roscosmos says he is planning his own space station, but he hasn’t shared many details.
“You could take it with a grain of salt, given their overall economic situation,” Logsdon said.
Both NASA and Roscosmos aim to build new space stations on the moon, but not together.
NASA has established a series of agreements for the new era of lunar exploration, called the Artemis Agreements, which 20 other countries have signed. Russia and China have not signed the agreements. Instead, they said they plan to build their base, together, on the lunar surface.
“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 period and not a model for the future,” Logsdon said. .
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