Russia is pulling out of the International Space Station, but that’s not the end for ISSJuly 27, 2022
As far back as 2015, Russia had announced that it intended to finish its participation in the station in 2024, but after discussions with the U.S. Russia not only walked back that deadline, but announced that its space agency, Roscosmos, would participate in a new space station being designed as a successor to ISS.
But on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that recently appointed Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov is calling it quits on any kind of cooperation. Russia will end its involvement in the station in 2024.
This creates an immediate issue in terms of what to do about the Russian segments of the station, which are a major part of the overall structure (and home to one of two space toilets). Some portions of the Russian section are practically new, like the Multipurpose Laboratory Module Nauka which only joined the station last year. Many parts of the Russian section are used by other members of the ISS crew, as are sections from the U.S., Europe, and other nations involved.
Although lately, visitors to the Russian section have been subjected to genuinely unsettling iconography, especially after the last two heads of Roscosmos made a series of threats related to the invasion of Ukraine.
If Russia withdraws, there will be an immediate question of what to do with these modules. On the one hand, they represent an enormous investment, much of which did not come from Russia, and the interior space and resources they provide would take at least hundreds of millions of dollars to replace. On the other hand … they’re officially Russian territory. Russia may actually insist that they be off limits, or physically detached from the station. In fact, Russia claims it’s going to build its own new station, so there could even be a scheme to recycle some of these modules into a “new MIr.”
The Russian segment is also home to a pair of docking modules. At this moment, two uncrewed Russian “Progress” capsules and the Soyuz capsule “Korolyov” are docked with the ISS, along with SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom” and an uncrewed Cargo Dragon. The station is a busy place for space traffic. Losing the Russian segment would mean losing positions for some of those vehicles, some of which are designed to play a vital role as potential lifeboats should the crew need to make a quick departure. Since there have been people aboard the ISS, there has always been a Soyuz there, ready to take at least some of them home.
Russia’s leaving the project is probably not all, or even mostly, about the events in Ukraine. Over the past few years, the U.S. has developed its own rides to space in the form of SpaceX Crew Dragon and the (finally in the home stretch) Boeing Spaceliner. This means that NASA has been buying fewer astronaut seats from Roscosmos. In fact, a deal concluded just last year was almost certainly more about keeping Russia involved than gaining NASA any necessary seats. Between the two U.S. launch companies, NASA can put everyone it wants on the station, and do it cheaper than if they go through Russia.
If Russia pulls out of the ISS as they’ve announced, there will be problems with what to do about the Russian modules. There will also be some schedule juggling to see that astronauts find their way to the station as scheduled. But neither of those things represents a particularly existential threat to the ISS’ future.
Two things might: Right now, neither Crew Dragon or Spaceliner is currently certified to hang around beyond six months as a potential lifeboat. They both have big advantages over Soyuz in capacity and simple comfort, but they need to get back to Earth after a relatively short time. This is an issue that can be addressed, either with technical changes or more frequent crew rotations, but it will have to be addressed. As time goes on and more performance data comes in, NASA may decide that the easiest solution is to simply certify one or both vehicles to stay on station longer.
The bigger issue lies with those Progress cargo modules that Russia sends to the station. Every now and then, the station needs to be “re-boosted” into a slightly higher orbit. That’s because there are still enough molecules of air up there to very slowly reduce the speed of the station and drag it back to Earth. For the life of the station so far, that’s been done using Progress. The most common U.S. cargo carrier, Crew Dragon, reaches the station with too little fuel to complete most such maneuvers (and yes, there are ways Crew Dragon might still complete a re-boost, but no one wants to go there quite yet).
However, alternatives on this issue were already in the works. As Universe Today reported in June, a successful re-boost of the station was carried out by yet another U.S. made spacecraft: a Cygnus cargo capsule from Northrup Grumman. Experiments are also planned to see if re-boosts can be carried out by Sierra Space’s “Dream Chaser” space plane that’s scheduled to begin taking cargo to the station in 2023.
If Russia does decide to leave the ISS within the next two years, ISS will go on. However, expect a lot of planning, and negotiation, over exactly what that “leaving” looks like. It would be not at all surprising if Russia tries to sell some of its modules to the U.S. or the consortium of nations involved in ISS, especially if the price tag included lifting some of those pesky sanctions. It would also not be a surprise if Russia calls the whole thing off when the rest of the scientific community refuses to panic.
And don’t worry. This probably won’t interfere with Tom Cruise’s film schedule.