The Russian portion of the station has the propulsion system, which is critical to keeping the station safely in orbit. Russia plans to build its own station.
In a move that feels as inevitable as it does surprising, Russia has announced that it’s leaving the International Space Station (ISS) program. NASA told the press they think this is fine and makes sense given what different countries have planned for space stations in the near future. But news organizations are still describing this as a harsh blow for the spirit of international cooperation and nonpolitical science that ISS represents. Can the near future of abundant planned spaceflight even work if mom and dad are fighting?
Bloomberg reports that Russia says they’ll be planning a space station of their own by the end of the current round of ISS agreements in 2024. They’re not the only ones: NASA’s director of International Space Station told CNN, “As we are planning transition after 2030 to commercially operated space stations in low earth orbit, they have a similar plan.” 2030 is the planned end date of all ISS projects, when the station will be allowed to deorbit and land in the ocean.
But it sounds overly diplomatic—2024 is a long time before 2030! This is not as simple as Russia just going its own way instead of continuing with ISS. A huge piece of the space station is Russian, and there is likely going to be collateral damage in the space-age international divorce. The Russian portion of the station has the propulsion system, which is critical to keeping the 240-foot-long station safely in orbit.
If you’re thinking that this feels inevitable given the growingly acrimonious relationship between Russia and the United States, NASA has also been trying to plan ahead. They’ve been brainstorming ways to keep ISS in orbit without the propulsion system in the Russian section. So it could turn out that ISS continues to operate as it always has, with other longtime partners Japan, Europe, and Canada.
Bloomberg speculates that Russia may feel burned by international sanctions from its war against Ukraine and wants to lash out. At the same time, the news organization explains that Russia’s space program has also lost a major funding source—which could have helped to preserve the symbolic Cold War-era link to NASA—since NASA began relying on Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to fly astronauts to and from ISS.
Russia Could Be Miffed With ESA, Too.
Russia was scheduled to launch its Luna 25 lander craft to the moon this year after some delays, but . . . That mission was a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA). After the ESA pulled out, the mission was eventually postponed, likely to 2023. That puts Russia behind what the United States has planned for its Artemis series of missions to land humans on the moon in 2024. NASA’s uncrewed test vehicle will be launched in August as planned.
So what will happen if NASA can’t maneuver ISS properly with occasional reboosts from visiting spacecraft? Well, things could hypothetically get way worse, because a Russia with nothing to lose in terms of international cooperation is exactly what started the Space Race in the first place. We could enter a new era of seeing the 2020s equivalent of Sputnik and feeling panicked that Russia is going to somehow launch war from space.
There are also ways Russia could wreak havoc in space itself. Currently, space is governed, in the proverbial sense, by some different official and less official diplomatic agreements. One of them is the official procedure to avoid in-space collisions, Collision On Launch Assessment (COLA), but what if Russia just stopped cooperating with these? Heck, what if they actively began developing technology to destroy other objects in space?
Russia will get back on track with their moon missions, too, meaning any long term plans to put people or facilities on the moon may be entering into a landscape of even more acrimony. This sounds more like the beginning of a political science fiction thriller than a happy ending for humankind.