Four decades of international cooperation in space now look primed to become yet another casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The newly-appointed head of Russia’s space agency said on Tuesday that after 2024, the country would leave the International Space Station that it helped build and jointly operates with the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada.
“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Roscosmos CEO Yuri Borisov told Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Associated Press. “I think that by that time we will start forming a Russian orbiting station.”
It’s unclear how seriously to take the threat, which comes weeks after NASA and Roscosmos announced a crew-seat swap that will allow a Russian cosmonaut to ride a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the ISS.
In an emailed statement, NASA administrator Bill Nelson reiterated the U.S. agency’s plan to operate the ISS through 2030, saying it “has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners.” Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment.
The news from Roscosmos follows months of bluster from former head Dmitry Rogozin that the agency would respond to sanctions from Western governments and companies by going it alone in orbit. Those sanctions, which were first announced in February, were explicitly meant to hinder Roscosmos. “It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” President Biden said when announcing that set of punitive measures.
Rogozin’s oafish conduct since then has already backfired. In March, Roscosmos lost its role launching OneWeb’s low-Earth-orbit broadband satellites (SpaceX will finish that work), and in July the European Space Agency scrapped plans to collaborate with Russia on a Mars rover.
But Russia’s space efforts have long been suffering their own form of orbital decay—a lack of funding, a lack of planning and a surplus of corruption.
A steep drop since 1992
It looked like Russia had nowhere to go but up in the summer of 1992, when the U.S. and the newly-formed Russian Federation pledged to cooperate in space exploration. Russia’s space program had become a shriveled husk of the Soviet effort that had put a satellite and a man in orbit before the U.S., leading to fears that impoverished Russian engineers would seek their fortunes building missiles for unfriendly nations. Back in Washington, rising costs of a planned U.S.-only space station risked shriveling congressional support.
The logical solution was a collaborative station, leading to the 1998 agreement to build the ISS. It requires “at least one year’s prior written notice” for any withdrawal.
ISS construction began with the Nov. 20, 1998 launch of the U.S.-funded, Russian-built Zarya module atop a Russian Proton rocket, followed by the Dec. 4 launch of the U.S.-built Unity module aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
Continuous human occupation of the ISS started Nov. 2, 2000, and after dozens of construction flights, the ISS is now the largest human-made object in orbit—and the one spaceship readily visible from Earth.
“It has been the epitome of international cooperation,” said NASA project executive Dennis Stone at a March conference in Washington.
Along the way, NASA learned from a Russian approach to building resilient space hardware.
“You were getting this robustness, and everybody learned that there was another way of doing things,” says Keith Cowing, editor of the NASA Watch news site and a former NASA manager who worked on station components in the early 1990s.
But Russia’s role in this cooperation has receded lately. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon means NASA no longer needs Russia for astronaut transportation. In June, NASA raised the station’s orbit using the U.S.-built Cygnus cargo spacecraft, a critical function that had been performed solely by the Russian section before.
“Multiple technical challenges”
It may be tempting to tell Russia “Bon voyage,” as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday. But the entangled life-support systems linking Russia’s modules to the others would complicate unwinding this relationship even if those components remain attached but mothballed.
“There’s multiple technical challenges, which probably given enough attention and resources can be solved,” says Jeffrey Manber, president of international and space stations at Voyager Space and founder of Nanoracks. That Voyager subsidiary operates an airlock on the ISS and is co-developing a potential ISS replacement, Starlab.
Manber got an inside look at Russia’s space program in the 1990s when he worked for the partially Kremlin-owned manufacturer Energia’s U.S. subsidiary, negotiating deals with Western partners. He suggested that by blocking imports of key components of Energia’s Soyuz spacecraft, the sanctions made a Russian exit inevitable.
But the sanctions, assuming Russia does not withdraw from Ukraine, would also make a future Russia-only station even more implausible.
The country continues to struggle with testing the Angara A5 rocket meant to replace the Proton, a 1965-vintage vehicle that’s seen its reliability decay and can’t compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. It also has yet to replace the Soyuz, which first launched in 1966 and has received several upgrades since, with a larger crew vehicle.
Manber’s assessment of whether Russia could launch its own station anytime soon: “No.”
Cowing concurs: “It has a chronic lack of funding for its space station program,” he says.
Russian cosmonauts might be stuck looking up at both the ISS and China’s Tiangong station, which occupies an orbit unreachable from Russian launchpads by current Russian rockets.
The U.S., meanwhile, is moving to replace the ISS with privately-developed stations and has three giant rockets coming: NASA’s expensive and expandable Space Launch System, SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship, and Blue Origin’s partly reusable New Glenn.
Five years from now, the U.S. shouldn’t require Russia for anything station-related. But its next two years may have gotten much trickier—unless this becomes yet another exercise in gamesmanship by a regime that knows its crewed space program faces oblivion without the ISS.