Jul 26, 2022 - Science

Russia's blow to the International Space Station

Illustration of an astronaut scraping a Russian flag sticker off the side of a space station

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Russia is planning to pull out of the International Space Station after 2024, potentially closing the book on the nation's close relationship with the U.S. in space.

Why it matters: During times of high tension on Earth — like during Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and today's ongoing war in Ukraine — space has often been one of the only open avenues of communication between the two nations.

  • It's also not clear if the space station can remain operational without Russia after 2024.
  • NASA is planning to send astronauts to private space stations after the end of the ISS, but those stations likely won't be available until the late 2020s.
  • This could leave NASA's astronauts somewhat stranded, with nowhere to go in low-Earth orbit as China gains its own foothold in orbit with its space station.

Driving the news: "The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made," Yuri Borisov, the newly appointed head of Roscosmos — Russia's space agency — told Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Associated Press.

  • After 2024, Roscosmos is planning to focus on building its own space station.
  • This plan is in line with other statements made by the previous head of Roscosmos, despite the fact that other ISS partners — like NASA — have pushed to keep the program going until the end of the 2020s.
  • "They have been good partners as all of our partners are," Robyn Gatens, NASA's director of the International Space Station, said during remarks at a conference today. "And we want to continue together as a partnership to continue operating the space station through the decade."
  • The news also comes after NASA and Russia announced seat swaps for the ISS where Russian cosmonauts will fly aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsules and NASA astronauts will fly aboard Russian Progress vehicles.

Yes, but: Any ISS partner that wants to pull out of the program needs to provide one year's notice and formal notification.

  • "We haven't received any official word from the partner as to the news today," Gatens said of Russia. "We'll be talking more about their plan going forward."

Between the lines: Russia's plans to leave the station after 2024 — if they come to fruition — could actually help solve a political challenge for the United States.

  • Continuing on with Russia as a partner in space could be a politically difficult thing to sell on the ground because of Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
  • "If the Russians are pulling out, maybe that's sort of a silver lining for the U.S." Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation tells me.

What to watch: The Moon is quickly becoming the focal point of geopolitical intrigue in space as attention turns away from the ISS.

  • NASA is working with multiple ISS partners for its Artemis program to send people back to the lunar surface while also enlisting other nations to sign its Artemis Accords.
  • Russia, on the other hand, has committed to partnering with China to build a research station on the Moon, rejecting the Artemis program.
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