Russia’s recent remarks about leaving the ISS have thrown the future of the long-running space station into question. For months, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has been threatening to end its role in the space station as a rejoinder to sanctions levied against the country upon its invasion of Ukraine. In a series of social media posts in early April, the former leader of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, threatened to terminate the Russian mission unless the U.S., European Union, and Canada lifted sanctions against Russian enterprises. Rogozin has since been replaced by Former Deputy Prime Minister Borisov, and experts hoped Roscosmos might set aside political disputes in the interest of scientific advancement.
The ISS, which has been continuously crewed since Nov. 2000, is one of the most successful multinational scientific collaborations in history. In January this year, NASA released plans to continue to operate the station through 2030, when the ISS will be intentionally deorbited and will plunge into the Pacific Ocean. That plan, however, is contingent upon the continued participation of the other space station partners, who had previously agreed to participate in the project through 2024. While partners like the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Japanese space agency (JAXA), and the European Space Agency (ESA) have expressed their enthusiasm for the projects’ continuation, participation from Roscosmos has been less certain.
On Tuesday, a series of comments from the newly appointed director-general of Roscosmos indicated that Russia planned to withdraw from the project “after 2024,” sending NASA officials scrambling to confirm. While a series of conversations between NASA and Roscosmos officials in the following days clarified that Russia intends to keep cosmonauts onboard the ISS until its own space station is operational sometime in 2028 (via Reuters), the exchange has done little to lessen tensions between the embattled collaborators.
Without Russian involvement, it would be incredibly difficult to keep the ISS in orbit. Russia has full control and legal authority over the 17 modules of the ISS it manages. Those modules are essential to the operation of the space station. NASA notes that Russia “provides all of the propulsion for International Space Station used for station reboost, attitude control, debris avoidance maneuvers and eventual de-orbit operations by the Russian Segment, Russian propulsion systems, and Progress resupply cargo spacecraft.” Should the Russians withdraw prior to the planned decommissioning of the space station, it will throw future plans for the ISS into disarray.
The space station remains a valuable site of scientific discovery and multinational cooperation, and is one of the last vestiges of warmer relations between Russia and the United States. This week NASA has been hosting its annual International Space Station Research and Development conference, which coincides with the release of its report, International Space Station Benefits for Humanity 2022. Whether the ISS partners will be able to continue that research depends on how this story develops in the coming weeks. The board that oversees the station’s management is scheduled to meet on July 28 to discuss formalizing agreements to continue collaborating on the ISS through 2030.