Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could jettison NASA’s plan to extend the operating life of the International Space Station — and could even spell its more imminent demise.
Russian space agency Roscosmos said Tuesday that it has authority to operate for only two more years and “the issue of extending the agreement in the current conditions causes our skepticism.”
Backing out of the partnership could be catastrophic for NASA and its other international partners, which are heavily dependent on Moscow for key sections of the orbiting laboratory and to carry out resupply, power generation and even boost the station’s altitude to prevent it from crashing to Earth.
Current and former NASA and administration officials and experts said the remaining space station partners — including the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies — could keep the ISS going without Russia. But it might not be worth the cost and effort.
“We’d have to invest a bunch of additional money to make that happen,” said Brian Weeden, a space researcher at the Secure World Foundation. “The ISS was never intended to be broken apart.”
Publicly, NASA is sounding hopeful that the cooperation, which dates back more than two decades, can withstand the latest blow in the relationship with Moscow.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council Tuesday that the U.S. is “committed to the seven astronauts and cosmonauts on board the International Space Station.”
The crew consists of four Americans, two Russians and a German from the European Space Agency.
Meanwhile, two NASA astronauts are wrapping up training with Roscosmos, three Russian cosmonauts are training with NASA, and up to five NASA astronauts are scheduled to begin training in Russia this month.
Russia’s only female cosmonaut is also set to travel to the space station this year aboard SpaceX’s Dragon, the first commercial space capsule to ferry astronauts.
Meanwhile in low-earth orbit, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return from the space station on March 30 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, breaking the American record for the longest duration spaceflight mission, at 355 days.
“NASA continues working relations with all of our international partners,” Nelson said Tuesday.
The question is how long that can last.
The Biden administration announced in December that it wants to extend the station until 2030 when a series of private space stations should come online. But it also acknowledged that it needed to get buy-in from its international partners.
NASA pledged “to work with our international partners in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Russia to enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory through the rest of this decade.”
In recent days, however, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, has threatened to sever the partnership. “Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?” he asked.
He also warned that without Russian space systems, the orbiting habitat could literally come crashing down. “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit?”
On Tuesday, Rogozin warned that Roscosmos would “reconsider its priorities” and focus on “independence in matters of space instrumentation.”
Following Rogozin’s initial broadside, NASA said it “continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station.”
It also insisted in a statement that new economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its assault on Ukraine “will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation” and that “no changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”
Many of the functions carried out by the ISS partners are intertwined.
The U.S. and its other partners could manage without Russia but it might prove so complicated and costly that it’s not worth doing, according to multiple experts on space station operations.
For example, one major operation that Russia performs is the periodic “re-boosting” of the station’s altitude. That is traditionally carried out by Russia’s Progress, an expendable cargo vehicle.
NASA is also counting on Russia to guide the station safely back to Earth when it is retired in the coming years, reporting in a new ISS Transition Plan that three Progress spacecraft are slated to accomplish the job.
The American Cygnus cargo spacecraft, built by Northrop Grumman, is in orbit and being tested to see if it can re-boost the station. But there’s one complicating factor: Cygnus is launched on the Antares rocket, which is partially built in Ukraine.
NASA is also planning that the Boeing Starliner spacecraft can perform the mission. But it is at least two years behind schedule and has yet to make its first successful flight to the station.
Rogozin also took a swipe at the Starliner in his recent comments, asserting that “Soon Boeing, having screwed up twice with its new manned spacecraft, the Starliner, will hold its breath for a third flight test.”
The SpaceX Dragon, which has been ferrying astronauts to the station since 2020, does not have the proper thrusters to accomplish the task, though it could be modified to raise the station’s altitude.
Japan is also building a cargo vehicle known as the HTV-X. But it has yet to be tested.
Still, all those options “would be a significant change to how things are done,” Weeden said.
Meanwhile, the Russian module attached to the station is considered crucial to keeping the ISS going, including as a primary power source.
“Roscosmos’ Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), added in July 2021, is a considerable enhancement that increases utilization on the Russian Segment for the next decade,” NASA said in its recently updated ISS Transition Plan.
One big question if Russia quits the station — in 2024 or even sooner — is whether it would also take its sections with it.
“Will the Russians want to take some of their modules with them when they separate? Do they work with us to separate?” said a former government official who asked not to be named because he has clients with a stake in the outcome.
He noted that such a maneuver would likely require the help of a robotic arm built by the Canadian Space Agency.
“Do [the Russians] ghost us? We are in unknown territory.”
The best strategy if Russia backs out, the former official said, may be to speed up plans to replace the station with privately funded habitats.
“Maybe we just have to accelerate transition plans.”