The International Space Station is at a crossroads. On Tuesday, Russia made its latest, most high-level threat to withdraw from the decades-old orbiting laboratory.
The threat to leave the station after 2024 — made by Yuri Borisov, the newly appointed head of Russia’s space agency, in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — comes as NASA plans for a commercial sequel to the station at the end of the decade. China, meanwhile, is assembling its own orbiting space laboratory, now nearing completion.
Hours later in comments at an International Space Station conference in Washington, D.C., NASA’s Robyn Gatens, director of space station operations, said that the space agency has received no official word from Russia of plans to withdraw from the lab. Both NASA and Russia, she noted, are making plans for life after the International Space Station, which space agency chief Bill Nelson has said should keep flying through 2030.
Russian withdrawal from the space station could take various forms, with Roscosmos in the past threatening to remove its modules, some of them fundamental to current lab life support and orbital station-keeping, to somehow cobble together its own orbiting lab. Keeping a reduced space station running would raise NASA’s maintenance costs, already budgeted at $1.4 billion yearly, in return for an orbiting lab that now mainly exists as a symbol of international cooperation, a site of limited research and as a nearby, escapable, test bed for observing the ravages that life in space exerts on the human frame, ahead of any efforts to operate bases on the moon or Mars.
“In some ways, this is just a continuation of what Russia has been saying for years, that they won’t commit to the station past 2024. But it does look like an elevation of the threat to leave, coming from the new head of Roscosmos,” said John Logsdon, an emeritus professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. NASA and Russia’s space agency work together hour-by-hour to keep the space station operating, he noted, so the notion that the issue of withdrawal has never come up in their daily discussions seems unlikely.
“NASA presumably has been making contingency plans with its European partners,” said Logsdon. “And by the same token, they have not discussed them publicly, in order to not set off the Russians.”
Earlier this month, NASA rebuked Russia for its three cosmonauts displaying anti-Ukrainian propaganda flags aboard the station. And in June, the space station had to adjust its orbit to avoid debris from a Russian antisatellite weapon test that last November littered low-Earth orbit with thousands of pieces of orbiting shrapnel.
“The long isolation of ISS from geopolitics looks like it is regretfully coming to an end,” said NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing. Russia’s war on Ukraine, and NASA no longer needing Russian rockets to send astronauts into orbit, has changed a long-running, uneasy, partnership in space, making it look less and less tenable. “The real question is, what are the Russians going to leave behind if they just walk away from the station?” Cowing added.
Born from the end of the Cold War, the space station is jointly run by NASA, Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan. Nearly 1 million pounds of hardware orbiting 260 miles above the Earth, the station now has seven occupants: three Americans, three Russians and one from France, and its position in orbit is currently maintained by thruster nudges from a Russian module. “The U.S. made a decision in 1993 to put Russia on the critical path to operating the space station, and now we are seeing the results,” said Logsdon.
NASA’s own plans for a successor to the International Space Station, a notional commercial space station in 2030, now under investigation by three contractors (as well as a proposal to first build an attached lab that will separate from the station after its life ends), are all at the planning stage. The space agency’s own safety aerospace council last week said those plans are on a “precarious trajectory” for meeting that timeline, echoing criticism from the agency’s own Office of Inspector General made last fall.
“NASA’s plans after ISS are to transition to the commercial sector. It’s not clear whether there’s a sustainable basis for commercial activities in space,” said Logsdon. “The space station has not proven to be the industrial or scientific success that was once promised.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.