A brief history of Russia leaving the International Space Station

You can't get away from politics, even hundreds of miles above the planet.
You can't get away from politics, even hundreds of miles above the planet.
Photo: Reuters/NASA/Roscosmos (Reuters)
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The new head of Russia’s space program told president Vladimir Putin today that his country would quit its role as a critical partner operating the International Space Station in 2024.

The news might be a surprise—except that the current agreement to operate the outpost in low-Earth orbit only extends until 2024. NASA officials say they haven’t received any formal notification from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, about this decision.

NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is coordinating with our partners,” the space agency’s administrator, Bill Nelson, said in a statement.NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”

The latest episode is part of a history of Russian space station brinkmanship that has escalated as the US has imposed sanctions on the country for its repeated invasions of Ukraine. It’s not clear if Moscow will follow through with its threats this time around, but the relationship between the two countries is at a post-Cold War nadir.

The diplomatic back-and-forth over the ISS

The diplomatic agreement governing the ISS was signed by fifteen governments in 1998, envisioning ten years of operation. The retirement of the Space Shuttle after the 2003 Colombia disaster slowed progress, however, and its operational life was extended to 2016 and then 2020.

In 2014, however, Russia annexed Crimea, leading to financial and economic conflict between Moscow and Washington. Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian lawmaker supervising its space program, said his country would not continue to work on the ISS as long as sanctions were in place. NASA officials reported that the daily work of flying the station wasn’t affected.

By 2015, Russia and the US agreed to extend the ISS lifespan until at least 2024. Despite political conflicts, Russia lacked the funding to launch its own ambitious space program, and was being paid hundreds of millions of dollars by the US to fly astronauts aboard Soyuz rockets because the US had no vehicles that could safely carry humans to space.

That didn’t mean a lack of tension. In 2018, now the head of Roscosmos itself, Rogozin accused a US astronaut of sabotaging the station. NASA denied the allegation as baseless.

And in 2021, Rogozin again said Russia would leave the space station over the on-going Crimea sanctions. NASA said then as now that it had not been notified of any decision.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine is a problem for space cooperation

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year resulted in unprecedented sanctions against Russia’s economy. In March, Rogozin threatened to abandon the ISS and allow it to fall into the sea. But earlier this month, he was removed from the job, and replaced by Yuri Borisov, another Russian lawmaker.

It was Borisov, in a meeting with Putin, who made the latest threat. The 2024 end date is currently on the books, but NASA and Boeing, which has a contract to run the station, believe the station could remain safely on-orbit through 2030. While NASA is no longer depending on Russia to fly astronauts thanks to SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule, the agency would prefer to continue working with its experienced partners on the ISS, to save money and protect the agency’s aura of political imperviousness.

What would happen if Russia follows through with its bluster? We’re in uncharted legal territory, but according to space attorneys, there would be a negotiation about how to either dispose of the station, split it into separate parts, or even see the other partners purchase Russia’s modules.

There are also technical challenges: Russia’s modules and spacecraft are responsible for maneuvering the station, and in particular regularly raising its orbit as the station naturally moves closer to Earth. Operating the station without Russia would mean replacing those capabilities, which is feasible but would require money and time. Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, two companies that fly regularly to the ISS for NASA, are reportedly studying how this could be done.

NASA is planning on a future where private companies can operate space habitats in low-Earth orbit, which could be visited by government astronauts or private citizens. Such stations are years away, however, and the space agency wants to avoid any gap between the retirement of ISS and the opening of new outposts in orbit.

This post has been updated with a statement from NASA.