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Russia Says It Will Leave International Space Station During Ukraine War

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Russia said Tuesday it will withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024, signaling the end of a joint project that has served as an important symbol of cooperation with Washington after the Cold War.

The move comes as Moscow and the West clash over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, sowing new doubts about the future of global cooperation in space. Russia has hinted that it sees its future primarily as a partnership with the Chinese space program rather than NASA, its most important partner for the past 25 years.

The head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the country would leave the ISS and focus on building its own space station, state media said.

“The decision on withdrawal from this station after 2024 has been made,” the newly appointed Roscosmos head Yuri Borisov said, according to Tass news agency.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday afternoon that the agency plans to continue operating the orbiting outpost until the end of the decade.

“NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030 and is working with our partners,” Nelson said in a statement. “NASA has not been notified of any partner decisions, although we continue to build future capabilities to ensure our large presence in low Earth orbit.”

It’s not yet clear what impact Russia’s announcement will have on the space station’s management in the coming years, said Cathleen Lewis, a curator in the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

“Does this mean that they will no longer send cosmonauts or spacemen from other countries to the space station, or will they really disconnect their components and take them out of orbit?” she said. “We really don’t know what it means.”

Russia’s handling of the withdrawal will have logistical implications for NASA and its other partners, including whether various space agencies or commercial providers intervene to fill the gaps.

“It’s like renting a group house with a bunch of friends and the last person is responsible for all the cleaning,” Lewis said. “The devil is in the details.”

Construction of the low-Earth orbit outpost began in 1998 and was completed in 2011. It was hailed as an example of reconciliation between the US and Russia, two longtime adversaries, but that relationship has now felt the impact of a renewed earthly confrontation.

The current Russia-US agreement on the aging space station will expire in 2024. Russian officials have previously hinted that they would let the agreement expire to work on their own Russian orbital station, which they hope will be operational by 2025.

On Tuesday, Borisov, who was named director of the Russian space agency this month, confirmed to Putin that he intended to do just that. Borisov said Russia would fulfill its obligations to its partners before leaving, Tass said.

He said Roscosmos’ main goal should be to “raise the bar” and provide the country with “necessary space services” such as global navigation, communications and meteorological data. The space “industry is in a difficult situation,” Tass quoted him as saying.

Russia’s announcement comes as the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to affect everything from Europe’s energy supplies to global food supplies.

Despite the split, NASA and Roscosmos signed a deal this month for astronauts to continue riding on Russian rockets and for Russian cosmonauts to take elevators to the space station with SpaceX starting this fall, The Associated Press reported.

That agreement ensures that the space station will always have at least one American and one Russian on board to keep both sides of the orbiting outpost running smoothly, AP said.

Still, Lewis said Russia has long threatened to disband its partnership on the International Space Station and instead build a new outpost in low Earth orbit. But she added that the nation’s space agency has been operating on a budget in recent years.

“Human spaceflights are very expensive,” Lewis said. “Where are they going to get the money? Even before the invasion of Ukraine and the financial impact of the embargoes against Russia, Roscosmos had very limited resources.”

NASA and Roscosmos were the two main partners responsible for the construction and operation of the ISS, also involving the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

However, tensions between Russia and the West, heightened by the invasion of Ukraine, have also worsened space relations.

Three Russian cosmonauts flew to the ISS in March. And Roscosmos released photos this month showing the cosmonauts holding the flag of Luhansk, one of the self-proclaimed republics that helped Russia split from Ukraine in 2014 and just claimed to be fully involved in the current conflict.

Former head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin has regularly criticized Western sanctions against Russia as they could lead to a crash of the ISS in the United States.

He also celebrated the flags of other countries covered by Russian-built rockets, and received a sharp response from retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.

“Without those flags and the foreign currency they bring in, your space program will be worthless,” Kelly tweeted to Rogozin in March.

While these recent events have made relations between the US and Russia go bad, Lewis said she thinks global cooperation on manned spaceflight is “inevitable” and will eventually continue.

“Human spaceflights are enormously expensive and require a multitude of viewpoints and a diversity of approaches,” she said. “You get a more complex, richer and more robust program than a single nation program with a single point of view with a single motivation largely driven by national prestige.”


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