Why Russia is abandoning the International Space Station
Russia has announced that it will leave the International Space Station after 2024 and launch its own, new space station soon afterward. The move isn’t necessarily surprising, given how the ongoing war in Ukraine is shifting geopolitics. The Russian space program has been flirting with leaving the partnership for years. Still, the decision is a major blow to international collaboration in space.
Russian media reported the announcement after Yuri Borisov, the new head of Russia’s space agency, discussed the decision with President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on Tuesday. Russia had not formally agreed to support the station past the 2024 date, but the Biden administration had planned to support the ISS’s operations until at least 2030. The United States must now figure out how to run the station without its longtime partner’s help.
That isn’t necessarily impossible, but it will be difficult. The ISS was originally designed so that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and NASA each control critical aspects of the space station’s operations. Right now, for instance, Russia controls the space station’s propulsion control systems, which provide regular boosts that keep the ISS upright and prevent the station from falling out of orbit. Without Russia’s help, that machinery would, presumably, need to be handed over to NASA, or replaced.
“NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is coordinating with our partners,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”
The ISS isn’t facing an immediate crisis, and Borisov said that Russia will, for the time being, honor its current obligations to the station. But the ISS was never supposed to be around forever, and the US is already funding several different commercial space station concepts that should, if all goes according to plan, replace the ISS by the end of the decade. Still, Russia’s decision is concerning, and serves as a stark warning that the future of space may not be as collaborative — or international —as it once was.
The ISS’s last legs
Politics isn’t supposed to influence the ISS. Russia and the US first started building the space station in the late 1990s, and the partnership was considered a major feat of international collaboration, especially in the wake of the Cold War and the decades-long space race. Since then, the ISS has brought together astronauts from around the world to conduct research that could, eventually, help bring humans even further into outer space. The ISS partnership now includes 15 different countries, and is considered by some to be humanity’s greatest achievement — and one that has mostly been above whatever is happening on planet Earth.
This is increasingly not the case. Back in 2014, Russia used the ISS in an attempt to pressure the US into recognizing its annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in the southern part of Ukraine (and which Ukraine still considers to be part of its territory). In an apparent bid to pressure the US into formally recognizing Russia’s claims on the region, the Russian space program suggested it would relocate astronaut training to Crimea. This was a critical threat at the time: NASA astronauts needed training to travel on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which, back then, was the only way to get to the ISS. The conflict came just months after the US instituted sanctions that were meant to punish Russia for its invasion of Crimea. In response, Roscosmos had implied it would stop transporting any NASA astronauts at all, with Dmitry Rogozin, who was the head of Roscosmos until he was fired on July 15, suggesting in a tweet that the US “bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”
“There has been a sense that the ISS is starting to become a bargaining chip of some sort in relations between the United States, in particular, and Russia,” explained Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, in late February.
The good news is that the US is no longer dependent on Roscosmos for transportation to the ISS; SpaceX has been transporting NASA astronauts to the space station since 2020. The not-so-good news is that Russia has signaled again and again that it’s not committed to the long-term future of the ISS.
Russia threatened to withdraw from the space station partnership in 2021 — again over US sanctions. The situation became even grimmer in November when Russia blew up a defunct spy satellite with an anti-satellite missile and created thousands of pieces of space debris, including some that US officials feared could damage the ISS. This test didn’t just highlight that Russia has the ability to shoot down a satellite from Earth, but that it was potentially willing to endanger its own ISS cosmonauts, who were forced to shelter in emergency vehicles for several hours after the test.
Things degraded even further in February when Rogozin appeared to threaten to crash the ISS into Earth. The next month, the Russian space agency announced it would no longer work with Germany on science experiments on the ISS, and also said that it will stop selling rocket engines to the US, which NASA has historically depended on. And Rogozin again raised the idea that without Russia’s help, NASA would need to find another way to get to the ISS. This time, he suggested “broomsticks.” For these reasons, Russia’s announcement this week isn’t really surprising.
“It is likely that Russia could exit the ISS given the geopolitical situation of Ukraine before 2025,” explained Namrata Goswami, an independent scholar of space policy, in late February. “If Russia ends up leaving the ISS earlier than 2025 due to the Ukraine crisis, it will be difficult to quickly develop the Russian support cycle for the ISS.”
Despite the war, NASA has tried to keep up the appearance of normalcy aboard the ISS. The agency has posted updates about science experiments happening aboard the space station and even put on a press conference promoting the first privately crewed mission to the ISS, which took place in April. But behind the scenes, the US is racing to figure out what an ISS without Russia might look like. One company, Northrop Grumman, has volunteered to build a propulsion system that would replace Russia’s, and Elon Musk has suggested on Twitter that SpaceX could help too.
Efforts to keep the ISS up and running without Russia might work for a few years, but the space station won’t be around forever. NASA still plans to vacate the ISS by the end of the decade, at which point it will be slowly deorbited over a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, clearing the way for new space stations to take its place. This includes China’s Tiangong space station; Tiangong’s first module launched into orbit last May — astronauts already live aboard — and the station is supposed to be complete by the end of 2022. In addition to the several new commercial space stations the US has in the works, Russia and India both plan to launch their own national space stations in the coming decade. Because these stations will generally be under the purview of one specific country, they probably won’t be as catholic as the ISS is.
Russia is charting a new course in space
Some of Russia’s near-term plans in space haven’t been affected by its ongoing war with Ukraine, at least for now. Astronaut Mark Vande Hei, for instance, still traveled back to the Earth on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle at the end of March, along with two cosmonauts. The agency still has plans to carry cosmonaut Anna Kikina on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon later this year. But other aspects of Russia’s space agenda are now up in the air, and possibly signal Roscosmos’s new approach.
For one, deteriorating relations between Europe and Russia have already impacted their work in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) — which represents 22 European countries — in late February issued a statement recognizing sanctions against Russia. In response, Roscosmos delayed the launches of several satellites at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana that were supposed to use Russia’s Soyuz rocket.
Separately, the Russian space agency got into a standoff with the UK over plans to launch into orbit 36 satellites from the satellite internet company OneWeb. Roscosmos was supposed to deliver these satellites (again using Soyuz) on March 4, but refused to do so unless the UK sold its stake in the company and promised that the satellites wouldn’t be used by its military. The UK, which has declared its own sanctions against Russia, said it was not willing to negotiate. OneWeb announced afterward that it would hire SpaceX to launch some of its satellites instead.
Plans for missions that will go deeper into outer space are also changing. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, Romania, Singapore, and Bahrain said that they would join the Artemis Accords. Fifteen other countries, including Poland and Ukraine, had already signed on to the NASA-led set of principles, which are meant to guide how countries explore outer space. And although Roscosmos was supposed to send a robot to Mars sometime this year alongside the ESA, officials said in February that these plans are now “very unlikely.” Rogozin announced that Russia will bar the US from its eventual plan to send a mission to Venus. Rocosmos’s Rogozin, for what it’s worth, has previously suggested that Venus is a “Russian planet.”
We don’t yet know how Russia’s war with Ukraine might ultimately impact its collaboration with China’s space program, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). In the past few years, the two countries’ space agencies have developed wide-ranging plans to work together in space, including an effort to build a base on the moon. Russia may also assist CMSA with the completion of its own space station. It isn’t surprising that CMSA would work with Roscosmos over NASA. The US has largely excluded China from its work in space: A 2011 US law bars NASA from collaborating with China’s space agency, and no astronaut from China has ever visited the ISS. This prohibition is a reminder that the ISS has never been as “international” as its name implies, and has also given CMSA ample reason to build a sophisticated space program on its own.
It’s not yet clear how much international tensions matter to Russia. Again, Roscosmos has plans to build its own national space station, which it aims to complete in 2025, and the Russian space agency has already started work on the station’s first core module. Then there’s the fact that Russia was a leader in the space race long before it started working with the ISS.
Though chances are looking slimmer by the day, there’s always the possibility that Roscosmos comes around and reconciles with NASA. After all, the Soviet Union and the US did try to work together in space throughout the Cold War — even as the two countries also tried to outdo each other, explains Teasel Muir-Harmony, the curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“There’s always been the combination of both competition and cooperation in space between the US and Russia,” said Muir-Harmony. “It waxes and wanes. It’s a fascinating thing.”
Update, July 26, 2022, 12:30 pm ET: This piece was updated to note that Russia plans to leave the International Space Station partnership after 2024.
Update, July 27, 2022, 9:15 am ET: This piece was updated to include a statement from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.