Russia talks about leaving NASA on the International Space Station. Although the news shocked many and sparked a flurry of headlines, the threat is neither new nor particularly threatening.
The NASA-Russia agreement on the ISS is set to be renewed in 2024. NASA has already committed to maintain the station until 2030, but Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has doubted the partnership for years. On Tuesday, the head of the agency made an official-sounding statement on the matter to President Vladimir Putin.
“Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to withdraw from the channel after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, the new director general of Roscosmos, said at a meeting with Putin, according to The New York Times.
“I think that at that point we will start to form the Russian orbital station,” he added. “Good,” said Putin.
While space enthusiasts wring their hands, the exchange doesn’t come as a shock to space policy cranks. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, whom Putin fired earlier this month, had repeatedly made similar threats.
“This has been expected for the past two or three years,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Insider, adding, “This is nothing new.”
NASA officials told reporters that Russia had not informed them of new decisions.
“We’ve seen this story many times. Let me be skeptical of immediate changes,” says Casey Dreier, Senior Space Policy Advisor at The Planetary Society. said on Twitter on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Kathy Leuders, NASA’s director of human spaceflight, told Reuters she had received word from Russian officials that they intend to work together on the ISS until their own space station is completed. In a statement translated by Google on Friday, Borisov predicted an “avalanche” of technical failures on the Russian segment of the ISS after 2024. At this point, it would be more economical to invest in a new Russian space station, he added.
“Whether mid-2024 or 2025 – it all depends,” said Borisov.
If Russia leaves the ISS, it won’t necessarily be a disaster for NASA. The agency has been preparing to operate the station without Russia for nearly a decade as relations between the two space powers have frayed.
“Russia’s announcement comes as no surprise, and repeating their current commitment through 2024 is helpful for planning,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, said in a written statement shared with Insider. “However, what comes after 2024 is still very much unknown, and the real question is when in-depth technical discussions about *how* the transition will be handled (rather than whether there will be a transition) will begin.”
NASA has been preparing for a hiatus from Roscosmos for nearly a decade
Roscosmos and NASA had a strained partnership from the start. While the two agencies were still building the first parts of the ISS, NASA was making contingency plans. In the late 1990s, Russia was behind in construction of the Zvezda service module, which was to be a core component of the station. NASA built a backup module in case Zvezda never came.
A decade later, NASA became dependent on Russian hardware. When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, the US could only fly its astronauts to and from the ISS aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
To curb this dependency, the Obama administration began funding private development of manned spacecraft. The result, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, is now regularly ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS.
NASA’s remaining dependence on Russia lies onboard the ISS itself. The station was built for interdependence: Russia’s side relies on solar arrays in the western portion for power, and the station cannot reach altitude without regular nudges from Russian progress -Keep spaceships firing their boosters to boost the station a little bit higher about once a month.
NASA is learning how to perform these “orbital reboost” maneuvers with the Cygnus spacecraft developed by its contractor Northrop Grumman. It conducted a successful test of the maneuver in June, a week after an initial test attempt failed.
It is unclear what a transition to a Russia-free ISS might look like. According to Pace, the biggest challenges would be orbital restarts, replacing Moscow’s ground support, and what to do with Russia’s modules and other ISS hardware.
“I am confident that without specific information, the US and its partners have been considering what could be done,” Logsdon said. Otherwise, they “would not be doing their duty,” he added.
The space alliance between the US and Russia is becoming increasingly tense
Over the years, the NASA-Roscosmos partnership has brought public spats. In 2014, Russia announced it would eject NASA from the ISS by 2020 in retaliation for US sanctions over its invasion of Crimea. The threat never came to fruition.
Last year, a Roscosmos official accused a NASA astronaut of having a nervous breakdown and drilling holes in a Soyuz spacecraft in 2018. NASA firmly denied the allegations.
In November, Russia launched a missile at one of its defunct satellites as a weapons test. The blast scattered thousands of high-speed debris through Earth orbit, forcing the ISS crew to retreat to their spacecraft in case they needed to make an emergency exit, and was condemned by NASA.
Tensions escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine. Rogozin, who then ran Roscosmos and was known for his inflammatory tweets, got into hotly worded Twitter arguments with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, a NASA contractor. Even Rogozin recommended that Russia could leave the ISS to fall to Earth.
Cosmonauts have displayed flags and images on the ISS in support of the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, citing a rebuke by NASA officials.
The USA and Russia want to go their own way after the ISS
Beyond the ISS, the paths of the USA and Russia separate. NASA funds the development of commercial space stations through three companies – Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman. His plan is to become a customer, renting rooms and lab space on an orbital station run by a private company.
Roscosmos says it is planning its own space station but hasn’t shared many details.
“That could be taken with a pinch of salt given their overall economic situation,” Logsdon said.
Both NASA and Roscosmos want to build new space stations on the moon, but not together.
NASA has reached a series of agreements for the new era of lunar exploration, called the Artemis Accords, which 20 other countries have signed. Russia and China have not signed the agreements. Instead, they have said they plan to build their own base on the lunar surface together.
“I think there will be international cooperation between like-minded countries, and the addition of Russia to the International Space Station will be seen as an artifact of the politics of a particular time, not a pattern for the future,” Logsdon said.
Read the original article on Business Insider