Real estate in circulation is getting a little more messy. Back in 2019, India announced that it would not join the International Space Station – instead of building and launching its own orbital laboratory. In mid-June, China launched successful astronauts for their new space station. And throughout 2021, the Russian government has threatened to do the same.
Russia has been a critical part of the ISS since its inception. The first segment of the ISS was Russian and was launched aboard a Russian proton rocket in 1998. Two-thirds of the Expedition 1 crew – the first team to live in the ISS – were Russian. The agreement, which originally governed the ISS, left Russia in charge of key altitude control functions, some life support modules and the crisis center. Russia has also historically supplied half of the station’s crew. The station itself is also divided into two main segments: one for Russia and one for the United States and the other partners. And in a more abstract sense, the ISS has provided a fairly stable outlet for cooperation between the United States and Russia, even during particularly tense periods.
But in April, in response to ongoing US sanctions and new ones introduced by the Biden administration, Roscosmos – the Russian space agency – called on the Russian state to leave the ISS. It reiterated this position in June during the discussion of plans for Russia’s own space station. While the current agreement on the ISS ends in 2024, most of the five core partners (US, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency) are working on an expansion until at least 2028. NASA may even try to extend the life of the space station longer by replacing key elements. of station infrastructure – or use planned module additions to create a long-term replacement.
Roscosmos has repeatedly and publicly claimed that the aging infrastructure of the space station is endangering its cosmonauts; evidence supporting these claims, however, is mixed. It is true that there has been a malfunction in the Russian part of the ISS, such as an oxygen leak back in September 2020. But to say that these maintenance needs are actively threatening cosmonauts, it may be a stretch – the ISS crew was able to correct the oxygen leak and was never in any serious danger. Not to mention when real danger poses, ISS crew members could head for a Russian Soyuz escape cushion.
And while some Russian space actors have expressed concern about the condition of Russia’s modules, other space experts such as former NASA engineer Keith Cowing point out that troubleshooting and completing maintenance work are only part of space exploration. It turns out that operating complex machines in space is actually fraught with challenges – no matter how old or new your craft or station is.
Yet the United States is heavily dependent on Russia’s role in maintaining the space station – especially as it has joint control over many key systems. So a verifiable threat from Russia to withdraw from the project could really threaten the life of the station.
But it does not make much sense for Russia to withdraw completely. On the contrary, this threat smells of political and / or economic stance from the Kremlin. First, the Russians plan to launch one of their biggest contributions ever – the Nauka, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module – to the ISS this month (more than a decade late on technical and budgetary issues). In addition, they also recently launched minor module additions to that circuit lab. Does it sound like someone is leaving it to you?
It’s also questionable whether Roscosmos – an agency facing a budget that falls when it’s struggling to launch new hardware – could thrive in space alone. In 2015, the Russian government’s decadal planning process provided less than half of the expected budget for Roscosmos. This budget was further cut in 2020, and these restrictions have stifled several Russian space projects. As a former Roscosmos official told France24 earlier this year: “Russia has no new spacecraft that is only a model.”
Given that Nauka suffered massive time delays and underfunding, it seems unlikely that the Russians will have their own station operational at any time, let alone in the middle of this decade. Russia itself has estimated that the station would not be in orbit until 2030. Roscosmos’ total annual budget is roughly equivalent to the 12 percent budget increase NASA will receive in 2021. Not to mention NASA chief Bill Nelson in June claimed that many Russians Government officials do not agree to leave the ISS and that “space workers, they will continue with the Americans.”
So what motivates the Russians to make the threat? Almost certainly money. Some state-level anger over U.S. sanctions. And perhaps China’s new orbital facility.
Since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, Russia has made a lot of money transporting American astronauts into orbit via its Soyuz spacecraft. NASA payments to Roscosmos for these trips amounted to nearly $ 4 billion. Between 2011 and 2019. It could be handled when Roscosmos reached its budget height of almost 10 billion. $ In 2013, but it has dropped significantly since then. In 2018, the budget was only $ 4.17 billion – which is still higher than the good $ 2 billion Roscosmos received in 2020. But now private companies are able to ferry astronauts to the United States, which greatly reduces the importance (and value) ) of the Russian Soyuz capacity. And while NASA signed an agreement in 2020 to reserve extra seats at Soyuz launches, this monetary well is running out of Roscosmos. With this source of funding gone, the Russians are probably desperate to raise capital elsewhere. And it’s expensive to be part of the ISS: Russia is expected to spend about $ 4.1 billion in maintenance costs between 2016 and 2025. Perhaps Russia, by threatening to leave, hopes to get a new source of financial commitments from NASA to help its space budget now that Soyuz is not bringing in the big bucks. Some space writers have speculated that Russia may threaten to travel and then ask to receive maintenance fees to keep its systems on the ISS in operation. This seems plausible given that Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin (who is currently under US sanctions himself) openly expressed concern about paying to maintain the ISS and establish the Russian station at the same time – which Rogozin also admitted almost certainly would be necessary to start a national station.
This is not the first time Russia is threatening to leave the ISS. Back in 2015, Roscosmos began discussing plans to leave the ISS in 2024. This was due at least in part to strained relations between the United States and Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. During hearings on Capitol Hill, then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden suggested Congress that if that happened, the United States would just travel too. More likely, however, American astronauts and those from NASA partners such as Japan and Europe will have to capture significant slack in the day-to-day operation of the space station. Russia could also choose to remove some modules to pair with its new space station. Even if the U.S. were to send more astronauts to fill the ISS crew, the economic hit would probably not be burdensome enough for immediate shutdown, as the U.S. already covers about 75 percent of the current annual cost of the ISS.
The real concern if the ISS connections break down is that we might launch a new spaceflight. Not only has Russia promised to build its own station, but it has a signed memorandum of plans with China to consider establishing a common lunar base. It has also been working with the Chinese government on their newly launched space station. So while the ISS has maintained a general sense of neutrality in space research over the last few decades, a collapse in the station’s relationship may allow politics and open nationalism to creep back into the orbital environment.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores new technologies, public policy, and society.