When Russia and the US aren’t getting along, it’s traditional to point to the International Space Station to show that peaceful cooperation in space is possible, even when the two nations are deeply divided on Earth.
This time feels different. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created the largest ever divide between the two major partners in the fifteen-nation project, and economic warfare threatens to sever Russia’s aerospace industry from the global economy.
Russia’s top space official, Dmitry Rogozin, known for overblown Twitter rhetoric on his best days, has hit new highs during the crisis, at one point suggesting that due to sanctions, Russia would abandon the orbital habitat and let it crash into Earth.
NASA officials have been typically circumspect, saying regular cooperation continues and they have no indication of any changes. Officially, the ISS is set to operate through 2024, though most people involved expect to see that deadline extended through 2028 or 2030.
Now, those negotiations will be fraught. It’s not clear how the Ukrainian crisis will end, but the economic sanctions targeting Russia will likely be rolled back slowly, and could lead Russia to call it quits.
What would happen if Russia leaves the ISS?
“I would hope any change on their part would be an orderly one,” Scott Pace, a space policy expert at George Washington University and the former executive director of the US Space Council, told Quartz. “Assembling the ISS took a look of international cooperation. Any separation of the station or safe disposal will also require international cooperation.”
Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor who specializes in space law, says the agreements governing the ISS require a partner seeking to leave to obtain consent from the other partners. Without that permission, they would be in breach of the agreement. Practically speaking, “if the withdrawing partner decides to speak with the remaining partners, it’s all subject to negotiation.”
Talks would be required because the space station is designed to be interdependent. “You just can’t take your football and go home,” Gabrynowicz says. “If the Russians simply say ‘we’re leaving’, that might lead to legal and diplomatic action, but the issue of the engineering aspects, the integrity of the station, the viability, the sustainability, will have to be addressed by the remaining partners.”
If Russia declined to participate in the ISS and went so far as to unhook its modules, could the rest of the nations involved keep the station in orbit? The answer is yes, but it might take time, money, and effort. The US provides electricity and stability control, while Russian spacecraft regularly push the station up to its target orbit when it drifts lower. Replacing that function would be the top priority for any effort to maintain the station without Russia.
What it would take to operate ISS
The US has one spacecraft that can do the job, the Cygnus built by Northrop Grumman, but though the rocket that typically carries it depends on components manufactured in Ukraine, it has flown on the US Atlas V rocket and could likely be launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9. Another vehicle that could boost the habitat is Boeing’s Starliner, expected to reach the station for the first time this year. SpaceX’s Dragon, the main vehicle the US has to reach the station, doesn’t have the ability to lift it. NASA says the company is looking at what it would take; SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It’s worth noting that the US commercial space industry is the only reason the US can be confident about its leadership in orbit. Absent SpaceX, the US would still be sending its astronauts to Russia for missions to the ISS and using Russian-built engines to launch most of its satellites.
Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the late senator John McCain made a point of fighting to end American aerospace dependence on Russia by letting SpaceX compete directly with Boeing and Lockheed Martin. After Rogozin mocked US rockets as broomsticks this week, a SpaceX flight controller speaking on a livestream before a satellite launch yesterday announced that it was “time to let the American broomstick fly and hear the sound of freedom.”
NASA is already planning a post-ISS future
Meanwhile, the US is planning a long-term replacement for the ISS: Commercially-operated space stations. Later this month, the first mission from Axiom Space is expected to send four people to the ISS in an intial step towards building their own module on the station, with the intent of spinning it off as a free-floating habitat later on. NASA will spend $100 million to back this and similar projects in 2022.
Still, the space agency would like to wring every ounce of return out of its investment in the space station, and Russia has plenty of incentive to continue its collaboration. The majority of its work is supplying and operating the ISS, and without a destination, it is not clear what Russia would do with its Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Few analysts believe Russia has the capital and know-how to launch its own habitat in the next decade, and it can’t reach China’s new space station from its current launch sites. Russian leaders are unlikely to want their country to be seen as a space also-ran.
Gabrynowicz points out the space station agreements were inked when the Soviet Union was still a Cold War rival, and Russia only later joined the project as part of global reconciliation in the 1990s. It’s possible that the ISS could be a venue to help pull Russia back into the world community for a second time.
A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.