Russiα’s War In Ukrαine Is Threαtening An Outpost Of Cooperαtion In Spαce
Russiαn President Vladimir Putin falsely claims the U.S. is working with Nazis in Ukrαine, while President Biden calls Putin a “wαr crιмιnal.”
Aboard the jointly controlled International Space Station (ISS), however, the tone is very different: American astronauts live side-by-side with Russiαn cosmonauts; they regularly check in with mission control centers in both countries; and supplies arrive aboard Russiαn and U.S. spacecraft alike.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson expects all that to continue for the foreseeable future: “I see nothing that has interrupted that professional relationship,” Nelson said at a Senate hearing earlier this month. “No matter how awful Putin is conducting a wαr with such disastrous results in Ukrαine.”
But as the decades-old station nears the end of its physical lifespan, some experts worry that the long-standing relationship may come to an end.
“I hope we can hold it together as long as we can,” says Scott Kelly, a former astronaut who lived alongside Russiαn cosmonauts for nearly a year.
But he adds, NASA should prepare for the possibility that Russiα might soon end its participation: “I think what they’ve shown us is they’re capable of anything,” he says.
A longstanding partnership starts to unravel
For 23 years, the space station has floated above the politics of planet earth as a symbol of unity between several nations around the globe.
It launched largely as a U.S.-Russiαn project in 1998, when it seemed possible the two foes could make a new start. The station was designed so that each side literally needed the other to survive: The U.S. provides power, while Russiα keeps the station at the correct altitude and orientation.
At the time “it was in the U.S. national interest to engage with Russiα,” says Mariel Borowitz, an associate professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The joint program kept Russiαn rocket scientists employed during a moment when Russiα faced political and economic instability, she says.
Kelly notes that by depending solely on Russiα systems for certain functions, NASA was able to save money.
In 2011, the interdependency grew even stronger. NASA retired the space shuttle, which regularly carried astronauts and supplies to the station. Without the shuttle, the space agency relied on Russiα’s space program to get its astronauts to the station. Kelly says the Russiαn program excelled at launching humans into orbit. “They can reliably put three people into space and bring them home,” he says. “That’s what they do very, very well.”
The U.S. may have needed a ride, but they also had plenty of what Russiα’s space agency required – money.
NASA paid billions over the years for its seats aboard the Soyuz rocket, helping keep the venerable Russiαn space program financially afloat.
The symbiotic relationship has endured even as things on the Earth have deteriorated: wαrs, assassination attempts and allegations of political meddling have not been enough to send the space station off course. But a mix of geopolitical and technical factors are now bringing rapid change to the collaboration.
In 2020, SpaceX officially began transporting NASA astronauts to the station, ending America’s reliance on Russiαn rockets.
The end of that vital tie was big at the time, but it pales in comparison to Russiα’s decision to invade Ukrαine. The wαr has strained almost every aspect of U.S. and Russiαn relations, and it has already ruptured another long-standing Russiαn collaboration with the European Space Agency, or ESA.
“There was ongoing cooperation between Europe and Russiα on different things, and it’s being severed,” says Tomas Hrozensky, a research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna, Austria. ESA has kicked Russiα out of its lunar program, and a long-awaited European mission to Mars is suspended, because it was set to go to space later this year aboard a Russiαn rocket.
“As a consequence of the wαr in Ukrαine, the member states of ESA have put significant sanctions on Russiα,” ESA’s director general, Josef Aschbacher, said at a recent NASA press conference. The decision to suspend the rover mission “is painful” he conceded.
Could Russiα ditch space station?
Russiα’s interest in Western collaboration has also cooled as the wαr has heated up.
In response to European sanctions, the country suspended Soyuz launches from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. And late last month, the head of Russiα’s space agency, a prickly politician named Dmitry Rogozin, hinted that Russiα may soon announce it will pull out of the space station.
“The decision has already been made,” Rogozin said during an interview on Russiαn state television. “We aren’t obligated to talk about it publicly. I can only say one thing: that in accordance with our obligations we will notify our partners a year in advance about the end of our work on the ISS.”
NASA would like to keep the station running until 2030, but the Russiαn components are among the oldest parts and are only certified to operate until 2024, says Anatoly Zak, a site that has long tracked the Russiαn space program. “Beyond that [date], Russiα will need to make some additional investments and some political commitments,” he says.
Both Zak and Borowitz say they’re not sure how seriously to take Rogozin’s threats of withdrawal. He has made similar statements in the past, Borowitz notes, but without the space station, or some kind of replacement, “they’re going to be in a situation where their cosmonauts don’t have a clear mission.”
“It would be politically very costly for Russiα not to have human spaceflight,” Zak says. The space program “has a huge role in Russiαn propaganda and Russiαn politics.”
Indeed the station has played a part in Russiα’s propaganda efforts around its latest wαr .
Soviet-era memorabilia has begun to appear in the Russiαn part of the station, Zak notes. And on a space walk in April, two cosmonauts unfurled a Soviet victory banner to celebrate Russiα’s “Victory Day” that marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The banner has more recently been flown by Russiαn forces throughout Ukrαine.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly says the U.S. should start thinking about how to keep the station operating without the Russiαns. “It would be really really hard, but I think NASA is great at doing really, really hard things,” he says.
Kelly, an outspoken opponent of Russiα’s actions in Ukrαine, says he supports continuing to work together in space, for the time being.
But as the wαr grinds on and the allegations of atrocities grow, he says his views may change: “At some point, things like murdering innocent people, rape, genocide – transcend the importance of space cooperation.”