Russia’s space ambitions grow despite diplomatic tensions with the West

Moscow has said it will leave the International Space Station “after 2024”, amid political tension with the West. Analysts warned that the move could lead to the suspension of manned flights by Russia. Moscow will now focus on building its own space center.

The confirmation of the long-debated move comes as ties between the Kremlin and the West are being undone by Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and several rounds of devastating sanctions against Russia, including its space sector.

The Russian space administration, Roscosmos, has told the German Aerospace Center that it will no longer participate in “joint space experiments” on the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, Roscosmos suspended launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and withdrew about a hundred of its workers.

Space experts said Russia’s departure from the International Space Station would seriously affect the country’s space sector and deal a serious blow to its manned spaceflight programme, a major source of Russian pride.

“Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision was made to abandon this station after 2024,” Yury Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, told President Vladimir Putin, according to an account of the Kremlin. of meeting him.

“I think that by this time we will start putting together a Russian orbital station,” Borisov added, calling it the top “priority” of the national space program.

united states surprised

“It’s an unfortunate development given the critical scientific work done on the ISS, the valuable professional collaboration our space agencies have had over the years,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that Washington was surprised. with the ad.

In a statement to AFP, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency “has not been informed of any partner’s decisions, although we continue to build future capabilities to ensure our increased presence in low Earth orbit.” .

The ISS will retire after 2024, although the US space agency NASA says it can remain operational until at least 2030.

Until now, space exploration has been one of the few areas where cooperation between Russia and the United States and its allies has not been affected by tensions over Ukraine and elsewhere.

The ISS was launched in 1998 at a time of hope for cooperation between the United States and Russia following their Space Race competition during the Cold War.

Russia relies heavily on imports for everything from manufacturing equipment to consumer goods, and the effects of Western sanctions are expected to wreak havoc on the country’s economy in the long run.

Space expert Vadim Lukashevich said space science cannot thrive in a heavily sanctioned country.

“If the ISS ceases to exist in 2024, we will have nowhere to fly,” Lukashevich told AFP. “At stake is the very preservation of manned flight in Russia, the birthplace of cosmonautics.”

technical insulation

Pointing to Russia’s growing scientific and technological isolation, Lukashevich said authorities could not plan more than several months in advance, adding that even if Russia builds an orbiting station, it would be a throwback to the 1980s.

“It will be archaic, like an old lady’s flat, with a push-button phone and a record player,” he said.

Space analyst Vitaly Yegorov made a similar note, saying that it was almost impossible to build a new orbital station from scratch in a few years.

Yegorov also said that Russia’s exit from the ISS meant that Moscow might have to freeze its manned flight program “for several years” or even “indefinitely”.

The move could also cause Russia to abandon its main spaceport, Baikonur, which it is leasing from Kazakhstan, Yegorov said.

Russian Soyuz rockets were the only way to reach the International Space Station until SpaceX, led by billionaire Elon Musk, unveiled a capsule in 2020.

mishaps, scandals

The Soviet space program can boast a number of key achievements, including sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first satellite four years earlier.

But experts say Roscosmos is now a shadow of its former self and has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years, including corruption scandals and the loss of several satellites and other spacecraft.

Borisov, appointed in mid-July, replaced Dmitry Rogozin, a fiery politician known for his bombastic remarks.

Rogozin had previously warned that without Moscow’s cooperation, the ISS could fall out of orbit and land on US or European soil.

Project Mars on Ice?

Another victim is the Rosalind Franklin rover, whose launch within the framework of the joint Russian-European mission ExoMars had already been postponed from 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

The rover, which is designed to drill into Mars for signs of life, is now “highly unlikely” to launch this year, the European Space Agency said.

The ESA rover was to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Russian rocket and then carried to Martian soil by the Russian Kazachok lander.

Getting Rosalind Franklin, named after an English chemist and DNA pioneer, into space without Russian help would require major revisions, and the launch window only comes every two years.

“It is heartbreaking for science and scientists who have established links over the years and put in years of work,” said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a space policy specialist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

(Wwith news wires)

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