Russia’s exit from ISS shows that space exploration is reaching a turning point, experts say

Russia’s exit from ISS shows that space exploration is reaching a turning point, experts say
This NASA photo taken on Nov. 4, 2018, shows the International Space Station photographed by crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking.

Various players have plans of their own for the future of space, instead of collaboration. One authority said all the ISS partners are going to leave “after 2024,” it’s just a matter of when.

By Maria IqbalStaff Reporter

Wed., July 27, 20223 min. read

Russia’s plan to leave the International Space Station (ISS) in the near future is just one step in the evolution of space exploration as it reaches a turning point, experts say.

Despite headlines generated by Tuesday’s announcement by the new head of the Russian space agency, experts said they were not surprised. The agency has been saying it plans to leave for years, long before the recent invasion of Ukraine, those observers said — though this time it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin is also on board, suggesting the announcement is more than a bluff.

In the words of Marcia Smith, a U.S. veteran policy analyst, all the ISS partners are going to leave “after 2024,” it’s just a matter of when.

But with NASA exploring privatizing space, China building its own space station, and Russia investing in space weapons, the Kremlin’s exit would be a small move at a time of transition in the future of space.

A home base for astronauts and cosmonauts in low-Earth orbit, the ISS is an initiative mostly between U.S. and Russia, with support from international partners. Russia runs one section of the football-field-sized station, with a second run by the U.S. and the other countries.

The outpost was built by launching pieces into space and attaching them in orbit starting in 1998. The first crew arrived on Nov. 2, 2000, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the ISS has been continuously occupied ever since.

The space station has long symbolized international collaboration. The U.S. plans to continue its mission in the ISS for the next eight years, but its future is unclear after that.

“NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is co-ordinating with our partners. NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit,” said an email statement attributed to NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

(Russia has yet to give written notice — as is required a year in advance — of its intention to leave the ISS, said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit group focused on space sustainability.)

Meanwhile, NASA is experimenting with commercial orbiting stations.

“NASA has said after it ends this ISS program, it will not do another station and it’ll leave low-Earth orbit to the private sector … So we’re at a transition point,” said John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Depending on when Russia leaves, there could be challenges in keeping the ISS running. The remaining partners would have to get more familiar with operating the Russian-run section on their own, said Smith.

Jordan Bimm, a historian of science at the University of Chicago, told the Associated Press that it’s unclear what Russian technology that country will leave operational and what it might disable or remove. The most immediate problem might be how to boost the ISS periodically to maintain its orbit, he said — right now, it’s Russian spacecraft that arrive with cargo and crew members to help align the station and raise its orbit.

In response to a request for interview, the Canadian Space Agency, one partner in the non-Russian section, sent an email statement saying it’s “committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station … (and) is aware of press reports but has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners.”

One possibility is that Russia could sell its services to the ISS, said Smith, noting the U.S. previously paid Russia tens of millions of dollars to move crews back and forth from the station.

For its part, Russia has said it plans to build its own station, something critics say is unlikely for lack of funding.

But Russia also has a fast-moving program for counter-space capabilities, Samson says — in other words, space weapons. Last November, Russia deliberately shot a missile to destroy one of its own satellites in a test, creating more than 1,500 pieces of debris.

“My concern is if Russia doesn’t have a healthy outlet for its space interests … they’re going to put all their eggs in the basket of counter-space, which I don’t think would be good for anyone from a global security viewpoint.”

—With files from the Associated PressMaria Iqbal is a 905 Region-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Maria via email:


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