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Russia says it wants to leave the ISS. What now?

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Four decades of international cooperation in space now seem poised to become yet another victim of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The newly appointed head of Russia’s space agency said on Tuesday that after 2024, the country will abandon the International Space Station it helped build and operate alongside the US, Europe, Japan and Canada.

“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made”, Roscosmos CEO Yuri Borisov told Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Associated Press. “I think we will form a Russian track station by then.”

It’s unclear how seriously to take the threat, which comes weeks after NASA and Roscosmos announced a crew-seat swap that allows a Russian cosmonaut to drive a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the ISS.

But Russia’s space efforts have long suffered from its own form of orbital decay – a lack of funding, a lack of planning and a excess of corruption.

A steep decline since 1992

It seemed like Russia had nowhere to go but in… the summer of 1992, when the US and the newly formed Russian Federation pledged to cooperate in space exploration. Russia’s space program had become a shriveled shell of the Soviet effort that put a satellite and a man into orbit around the US, sparking fears that impoverished Russian engineers would seek their fortune building missiles for unfriendly nations. Back in Washington, the rising cost of a planned US-only space station threatened to dwindle congressional support.

The logical solution was a collaborative drive, which led to the 1998 agreement build the ISS. It requires “at least one year’s prior written notice” for any withdrawal.

Along the way, NASA learned of a Russian approach to building resilient space hardware.

“You got this robustness and everyone learned there was a different way of doing things,” said Keith Cowing, editor of the nasa watch news site and a former NASA executive who worked on station components in the early 1990s.

But Russia’s role in this cooperation has declined recently. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon means NASA no longer needs Russia for astronaut transport. In June, NASA elevated the station’s orbit using the US-built Cygnus cargo spacecrafta crucial function previously performed exclusively by the Russian section.

“Multiple technical challenges”

It might be tempting to tell Russia “Bon voyage” as CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday. But the intertwined life support systems linking the Russian modules to the other would make breaking this relationship difficult, even if those components stick together but sit still.

“There are multiple technical challenges, which can probably be solved with enough attention and resources,” says Jeffrey Manberpresident of international and space stations in Voyager space and founder of nano racks. That Voyager subsidiary operates an airlock on the ISS and is jointly developing a potential ISS replacement, starlab.

Manber got a behind-the-scenes look at Russia’s space program in the 1990s when he worked for the US subsidiary of manufacturer Energia, part-owned by the Kremlin, negotiating deals with Western partners. He suggested that by blocking the entry of key components of Energias Soyuz spacecraftsanctions made a Russian exit inevitable.

But the sanctions, assuming Russia doesn’t pull out of Ukraine, would make a future Russia-only station even more implausible.

The country remains struggle with testing the Angara A5 rocket intended to replace the Proton, a 1965 vehicle that has seen its reliability decline and cannot compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. It also has to replace the Soyuz, which first launched in 1966 and has since received several upgrades, with a larger crew vehicle.

Manber’s assessment of whether Russia could soon launch its own station: “No.”

Cowing agrees: “It has a chronic lack of funding for its space station program,” he says.

Russian cosmonauts may be stuck looking up at both the ISS and China’s Tiangong Stationoccupying an orbit inaccessible from Russian launch pads by current Russian missiles.

The US, meanwhile, is in the process of replacing the ISS with privately developed stations, and three giant rockets are on their way: NASA’s expensive and expandable Space Launch System, SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship, and Blue Origin’s partially reusable. New Glenn.

In five years, the US would no longer need Russia for anything related to stations. But the next two years may have gotten a lot trickier — unless this becomes yet another exercise in gaming skill by a regime that knows its manned space program will fade into oblivion without the ISS.


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