Russia talks 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 until 2030, but the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has had doubts about the partnership for years. On Tuesday, the head of the agency made 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 already been made,” Yuri Borisov, the new director general of Roscosmos, told Putin at a meeting, according to The New York. Times.
“I think that by this time we will start to form the Russian orbital station,” he added. “Good,” Putin said.
While space enthusiasts wrung their hands, the exchange did not surprise space policy experts. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, whom Putin fired earlier this month, repeatedly made similar threats.
“This has been seen coming for the last two or three years,” John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Insider, adding, “It’s nothing new.”
NASA officials told reporters that Russia had not notified them of any new decision.
“We’ve seen this story many times before. Take me skeptical of any immediate change,” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society, said on Twitter on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Kathy Leuders, NASA’s director of human spaceflight, told Reuters she had received word from Russian officials that they intended to continue collaborating on the ISS until their own space station was completed. In a statement on Friday, translated by Google, Borisov predicted an “avalanche” of technical failures in the Russian segment of the ISS after 2024. At that time, 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 frayed.
“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 deep technical discussions begin about *how* the transition will be managed (rather than whether there will be a transition).”
NASA has been preparing for a Roscosmos break for almost a decade.
Roscosmos and NASA had a tense partnership from the start. Even as the two agencies were building the first parts of the ISS, NASA was making contingency plans. In the late 1990s, Russia was behind in the construction of the Zvezda Service Module that would be a central 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 the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
To reduce that dependency, the Obama administration began funding the private development of human-rated spacecraft. The result, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, now regularly transports astronauts to and from the ISS.
The remaining NASA dependency in Russia is on board the ISS itself. The station was built for interdependence: the Russian side relies on solar arrays in the western section for power, and the station cannot maintain altitude without regular pulses from Russian Progress spacecraft, which fire their thrusters to push the station slightly higher about once a month.
NASA is learning how to do those “orbital reboot” maneuvers with the Cygnus spacecraft developed by its contractor Northrop Grumman. It performed a successful test of the maneuver in June, a week after an initial test attempt failed.
It is unclear what a transition to an ISS would look like without Russia. According to Pace, the main challenges would be orbital boosters, 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 about what could be done,” Logsdon said. Otherwise, they would be “derelict of duty,” she added.
The space alliance between the United States and Russia has become increasingly tense
Over the years, the NASA-Roscosmos partnership has involved public wrangling. In 2014, Russia announced that it would expel NASA from the ISS by 2020 in retaliation for US sanctions over its invasion of Crimea. The threat never materialized.
Last year, a Roscosmos official accused a NASA astronaut of having a mental breakdown and drilling holes in a Soyuz spacecraft in 2018. NASA strongly denied the allegations.
In November, Russia launched a missile at one of its missing satellites as a weapons test. The explosion dispersed thousands of high-speed debris fragments through Earth’s orbit, forcing the ISS crew to retreat to their spacecraft in case they needed to make an emergency exit, and prompting doom. from NASA.
Tensions rose when Russia invaded Ukraine. Rogozin, then head of Roscosmos and known for his incendiary tweets, had heated arguments on Twitter with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, a NASA contractor. Rogozin even He suggested that Russia could leave the ISS to crash into Earth.
Cosmonauts have displayed flags and images on the ISS supporting the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, invoking a rebuke from NASA officials.
The United States and Russia plan to go their own ways after the ISS
Beyond the ISS, the paths of the US 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 client, renting a room and lab space at an orbital station operated by a private company.
Roscosmos says it is planning its own space station, but hasn’t shared many details.
“You could take that with a grain of salt, given their general economic 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 Agreements, which have been signed by 20 other countries. Russia and China have not signed the agreements. Instead, they said they plan to build their own 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 moment, and will not set a pattern for the future,” Logsdon said. .
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