By: April Carson
On Tuesday, the head of Russia's space agency said that after its current funding expires at the end of 2024, Russia will depart the International Space Station.
“The decision to vacate the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, who took over as Roscosmos' director earlier this month, said.
During a meeting between Mr. Borisov and Vladimir Putin, the latter of whom is the president of Russia, the pronouncement was made. “We will fulfill our obligations through 2024,” Mr. Borisov informed Mr. Putin during their meeting. “I believe we'll be able to construct the Russian orbital station by this time," he added. "That's wonderful," replied Mr. Putin.
In mid-November, a New Scientist article reported that the head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, had informed NASA and other station partners that Moscow would withdraw from the project. It is unclear whether Russia has formally notified NASA and the rest of the station's participants that it will leave the project; in previous statements, NASA stated that it plans to keep operating the space station until 2030.
“It's possible that this is bluster from the Russians,” said Phil Larson, a former White House space advisor during the Obama administration. “This may be revisited or implemented.”
The news might not spell the station's death in 2024, but it makes preserving it through the end of the decade more doubtful.
“The exit will take some time,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military and space analyst. “It's possible that we'll need to interpret this as Russia's refusal to extend the station's operations until 2030.”
The station will have to operate for as long as Russia is not involved. The outpost in space is made up of two parts: one managed by NASA and the other by the Russian government. The two are linked. The Russians provide thrust to periodically raise the orbit, which contributes a significant portion of the power on their side.
The first module of the station was launched in 1998, and astronauts have resided there since 2002. The partnership has weathered several ups and downs in bilateral relations between the United States and Russia during the last two decades, serving as a symbol of post-Cold War international cooperation. It has evolved into an important research facility in space and a testing platform for demonstrating commercial opportunities in orbit such as space tourism and advanced manufacturing over the past 20 years.
Nothing had changed in space, according to Kjell Lindgren, one of NASA's astronauts. “That is rather fresh news,” he said, “and we haven't heard anything official yet. Of course, you know that we were trained to do a mission up here and that it will require the entire crew.”
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen, with Dmitry Rogozin, Mr. Borisov's predecessor, declaring in recent months that Russia was planning to withdraw. But they left open the possibility of a final decision being taken at some point. NASA officials believe that Russia will retain its connection to the space station after 2030 because NASA wants to extend operations until then.
In an interview with a Russian news outlet this week, Mr. Borisov said that Russia was still discussing its future on the space station. “We haven't made any final decisions yet,” he said.
From Washington, NASA's Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he had not been formally notified of any decision by Moscow to leave the space station. “Of course, we would like them to stay,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
The majority of space station operations have continued without issue. In March, Mark Vandy Hei, a NASA astronaut, returned to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule as planned. In exchange for NASA astronauts riding on Russian Soyuz rockets, the US government and NASA signed an agreement that would allow Russian cosmonauts to ride aboard American-built spacecraft. However, this month, NASA fiercely criticized Russia following Roscosmos' release of photographs showing three Russian cosmonauts on the space station holding separatist flags in Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Russia is working on its own space station, but the Russian space agency is cash-strapped. NASA was forced to purchase seats on Soyuz rockets after the retirement of the US space shuttles in 2011, providing a regular flow of income to Russia. SpaceX's service to NASA astronauts began two years ago, resulting in Russia losing additional revenue streams as a result of economic sanctions that banned European and other nations' companies from using its rockets to launch satellites.
“The Russian space program cannot work without cooperation from the west,” Dr. Luzin added.
China's space program has launched a laboratory module on Sunday to join its space station, Tiangong. However, because Tiangong is not in an orbit that can be reached from Russia's launchpads, many of the talks between the two nations have focused on collaborative lunar exploration.
“China is not a real partner,” according to Dr. Luzin. “The Chinese have regarded Russia as a potential ally since 2012, but they have ceased doing so ever since. In terms of space, Russia can currently give the Chinese nothing.
It was the United States that wanted to terminate the International Space Station after 2024 just a few months ago.
The Trump administration has proposed ending federal subsidies for the space station, with the aim of moving astronauts to commercial facilities. That plan died out a year later when NASA redirected its efforts toward expediting plans to return astronauts to the moon.
The space agency has pledged to continue pursuing commercial space stations despite the fact that they have been postponed indefinitely. NASA gave contracts worth a total of $415.6 million to three firms - Blue Origin of Kent, Washington; Nanoracks of Houston; and Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia - in December to develop their plans.
However, the NASA inspector general has stated that even if the International Space Station is maintained through 2030, commercial successors may not be ready in time, and there might be a gap where NASA has no orbiting laboratory to conduct research on the long-term health consequences of zero gravity and radiation on astronauts.
If the decision to withdraw from the International Space Station leads to its abandonment, China would be the only country with a space station in orbit. China has offered to transport citizens of other countries on missions to Tiangong. With Chinese astronauts, European Space Agency astronauts have already practiced.
NASA is not permitted to collaborate directly with China on space in general.
The end of the International Space Station program could also see an end to American participation in human spaceflight. If commercial entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin are not able to provide crewed services to low Earth orbit by 2024, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to develop its own capabilities in time. This would mark a significant shift in the balance of power in human spaceflight, with China becoming the dominant player.
It is still unclear what will happen to the International Space Station if Russia does indeed withdraw in 2024. The United States has said that it is committed to maintaining the station until 2028, but it is unclear if they would be able to do so without Russia's help. There have been discussions of privatizing the station, but it is unclear if that would be feasible.
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