Russia says it will withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024


Russia announced on Tuesday that it would withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) project after 2024, marking the end of an era in one of the last areas of cooperation between Russia and the United States.

The new head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency announced the decision during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, saying the agency would instead focus on building its own orbital station.

“We will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made,” said space agency chief Yuri Borisov.

Russian officials have been considering exiting the project since at least 2021, citing aging equipment and growing security risks. The countries involved in the ISS have agreed to use the station until 2024, and NASA plans to use the station until 2030.

But continued disagreement between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a barrage of economic restrictions appear to have hastened the pullout. Last month, former Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said talks about Russia’s involvement after 2024 are only possible if US sanctions against Russia’s space industry and other sectors of the economy are lifted.

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Shortly after Russian troops entered Ukraine in February, President Biden imposed new sanctions on Russia that aimed to “downgrade” the country’s space program.

“We estimate that we will eliminate more than half of Russian high-tech imports. This will be a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their army. It will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” Biden said at the time.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin, known for his lines and a snarky years-long Twitter feud with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, threatened that Russia would allow the station to crash to Earth.

“The [is a] possibility of a 500 ton structure falling on India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risk is yours. Are you ready for them? said Rogozin then.

The two sections of the station operated by NASA and Roscosmos are interdependent, and it is unclear whether the ISS can be maintained with one side leaving the project. Russia is responsible for the space station’s critical propulsion control systems, which keep the ISS in the correct orbit as Earth’s gravity slowly pulls it toward the atmosphere. The US segment is responsible for power supply.

Roscosmos under Rogozin also sparked controversy when it posted photos of its three cosmonauts holding the flags of two self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine, where Russia launched its invasion. The post marked the capture of Lysychansk, the last town in what pro-Russian separatists call the Luhansk People’s Republic to fall to Russian forces, and was captioned “a day of liberation to be celebrated both on Earth and in space”.

The stunt with the flags and Russia’s apparent attempts to use the project as a bargaining chip in efforts to ease sanctions have been condemned by NASA.

“NASA strongly rebukes [Russia] using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally incompatible with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating nations to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes” , the agency said in early July.

But NASA has gone to great lengths to keep the cooperation afloat and tried to prevent the war from affecting the ISS partnership, promising earlier this year that the joint work would continue.

“Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts are all very professional,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said June 15 during a joint press conference with his European Space Agency counterpart.

“Despite the tragedies occurring in Ukraine by President Putin, the fact is that the international partnership is strong when it comes to the civilian space program.”

Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov handed over control of the International Space Station to American astronaut Thomas Marshburn on March 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

For a time, this effort seemed to pay off. It was not until July 15 that NASA and Roscosmos announced that they had reached an agreement to launch space travelers from each other to the station, with Americans aboard Russian rockets and Russian cosmonauts traveling to aboard SpaceX vehicles. The SpaceX launch was announced sometime after September 29.

At the end of March, an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts landed safely in Kazakhstan after leaving the space station aboard the same capsule.

The football-field-sized ISS was launched in 1998 and has since been an essential part of post-Cold War international cooperation involving Moscow, which has survived for decades as relations between the United States and Russia was deteriorating. Its demise will likely spawn new stations over the next decade, as NASA is actively involving private space companies and has provided seed funding for at least four concept stations.

Late last year, NASA awarded contracts to three companies to develop commercial space stations: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, in partnership with Sierra Space; Nanoracks, in partnership with Lockheed Martin; and Northrop Grumman. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Axiom Space is also developing its own private station and plans to launch the first segment by 2024.

But it is unclear when these stations will become operational. And some fear there will be a gap between when they will be ready and when the ISS will be decommissioned, leaving the United States with nowhere to go in Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, China has begun assembling its space station and launched a second lab module on Sunday.

Russia aims to launch its own project, but Roscosmos has been struggling financially for years and cash inflows have been hampered after the United States stopped using Soyuz rockets to transport its astronauts to the station and have turned to SpaceX for these services.

In his Tuesday announcement, Borisov admitted that Russia’s space industry is struggling as it also has to replace many foreign technologies that are no longer available due to sanctions.

“I see that my main task, together with my colleagues, is not to lower, but to raise the bar and, above all, to provide the Russian economy with the necessary space services,” Borisov said. “It’s navigation, communication [services]transmission of data, meteorological, geodetic information, etc.

Russian state media previously reported that Rocket and Space Corporation Energia was preparing a design project for the station, dubbed Russian Orbital Service Station, which is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2023.

NASA officials, however, said on Tuesday that they had not been informed of Russia’s intentions and that they planned to use the station until at least 2030, when commercial space stations are expected to be phased out. online to replace the aging ISS.

In a statement, Nelson said: “NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030 and is coordinating with our partners. NASA has not been advised of any partner’s decisions. , although we continue to develop future capabilities to ensure our major presence in low Earth orbit.

John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, told reporters on Tuesday that “we will remain committed to working with all of our partners on the ISS. …Obviously, we’ll explore the options.

The European Space Agency did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. But speaking at a conference about the research and development being done on the station, Robyn Gatens, NASA’s director of ISS, said NASA did not want to see the partnership end. “We want to continue together as a partnership to operate the space station,” she said. “I think the Russians, just like us, are thinking about what lies ahead. And as we anticipate a post-2030 transition to commercially owned and operated space stations in low Earth orbit… they are also considering a transition.

She added that NASA had “received no official word” from Russia, but that “we will talk more about their plan moving forward.”

If Russia were to withdraw from the station, it would be a logistically and diplomatically complicated process. The agreement that governs the space station states that while the partners can withdraw at any time, they must give “at least one year’s written notice”.

And while Russia’s statement said it would withdraw after 2024, it was unclear exactly when that might happen.

NASA has repeatedly stressed that its Russian astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the station continue to work side by side, as they have for years. And despite the turmoil on the pitch, they showed real signs of friendship. Earlier this year, when cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov handed over command of the station to NASA’s Thomas Marshburn, he said “people have problems on Earth…in orbit, we’re one crew.” Speaking in English, he called the space station “a symbol of friendship and cooperation and as a symbol of the future of space exploration”.

He thanked “my space brothers and sisters” and praised Marshburn, saying he would be a “professional commander of the ISS”.

But that didn’t always go well in space. In November, Nelson criticized Russia for conducting a missile test against a satellite that created about 1,500 pieces of space junk, some of which crossed the space station’s orbit. Then came the flag incident earlier this month. Nelson issued another reprimand, calling the display of the flag “fundamentally inconsistent with the primary function of the station”.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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