Space diplomacy: Russia commits to the International Space Station through 2024

Space bros.
Space bros.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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The Russian space agency has announced that it will extend its commitment to the International Space Station through 2024, before creating its own space station from the sections of the orbital laboratory it operates.

The decision came less than a year after Russian officials said they would not extend funding and other support for the station past the project’s expected end date in 2020. At the time, the US announced its plans to continue funding ISS through 2024, but tensions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine led to symbolic demonstrations of unhappiness via both countries’ space programs, which are an area of significant collaboration.

The US, for example, announced it would end all cooperation with Russia on space projects other than ISS, while Russia prohibited sales of its rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, the busiest US launch company. Russia also pointedly noted that, since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, it has provided the sole point of access to the station with its Soyuz space capsule. Without being able to hitch a ride, the country’s aerospace and defense minister suggested, the US would need to rely on trampolines, at least until Boeing and SpaceX fulfill their plans to ferry US astronauts by 2017.

But for all the posturing, ISS operations have gone ahead without a hitch since the February 2014. Four different Soyuz flights carrying four American astronauts, along with Soviet cosmonauts and spacefarers from Italy and Germany, flew to ISS. US astronauts recently took refuge in the Russian section of the station when a chemical leak was suspected in their compartment.

While Russia’s decision to end cooperation at ISS in 2024 has been portrayed as a setback, it’s progress from last year’s attitude—it’s a deal extending the two nations’ collaboration another four years. An agreement to go through 2024 is far longer than the original anticipated lifespan of the station; when assembly was completed in 2004, the project was expected to wind down by 2015. As recently as 2010, Russia and the US were developing contingency plans to decommission and safely destroy ISS this year. And indeed, Russia’s plan to separate its sections of the ISS and create a new space station was a decade old in 2009.

Of course, a lot can change in nine years. US-Russian relations could improve to the point where continuing space cooperation makes sense, assuming that engineers determine that the station will remain viable; and if those relations get much worse, we will have far bigger problems to contend with here on Earth. And the other main partners in ISS, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, have yet to decide if they will provide their share of ISS funding after 2020.

Given the changing economic realities since the end of the Cold War, those concerned with space diplomacy might turn their attention to a relationship that’s far more fraught: the one between NASA and China’s space agency, in which there is no contact whatsoever due to US laws prohibiting such exchanges.