Russia’s dominance in space was on the decline long before Vladimir Putin pulled his criminal invasion of Ukraine. Now, with world commendation and sanctions cutting the former Soviets off from key resources, NASA experts say that Russia may soon no longer be a force to be reckoned with in space.
Since Russia began its invasion last week, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin refused to launch a UK-satellite company’s payloads and stopped supplying Russian-built rocket engines to US customers, and threatened to cut ties with its International Space Station partners, including NASA.
But what will all of this mean for the once shining example of international cooperation – – the International Space Station?
For over 20 years, NASA and Russia worked together to build and maintain the orbiting laboratory 200 miles above Earth. The first modules were American and Russian. The first two astronauts to enter the space station when the lights were turned on were an American and Russian cosmonaut together, an intentional choice by STS-88 mission Commander Robert Cabana.
When the space shuttle program ended, the US lost its ride to space for American astronauts. It began purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for more than $80 million for nine years until SpaceX began launching astronauts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Since Elon Musk’s company began launching Americans from Florida in May 2020, NASA had purchased fewer seats from Russia and was negotiating for a cosmonaut to launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon when the Ukraine invasion began.
Rogozin has threatened to pull out of the ISS altogether and ended on-orbit science activities between cosmonauts and their international astronaut counterparts.
But thanks to the success of US-based commercial space endeavors such as Musk’s SpaceX, Russia no longer has a stranglehold on NASA and the US space program.
“They’re not getting money because a good part of their space program had been selling seats on Soyuz missions to the United States,” said University of Central Florida space policy expert Roger Handberg. “The Russians have lost their leverage, as you say, over the United States because they provided the access. Now we have independent access.”
In April, NASA Astronauts Mark Vande Hei is set to undock from the space station with two cosmonauts and return to Earth on a Russian spacecraft landing in Kazakhstan. He may be the last American to fly on a Russian vehicle as the relationship deteriorates.
The US, Europe, and Japan have been working to extend the life of the ISS until 2030, but Russia has only committed to 2024, and those negotiations were still underway prior to Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
If Russia drops out by 2030, things can get a little dicey.
“Does that mean we have to disassemble and take their modules off? That’s the kind of complicated question. We’re not there yet,” Handberg said.
Since the end of the shuttle program, the ISS has depended on Russian spacecraft to lift the space station and move it in debris avoidance maneuvers.
However, the Northrop Grumman cargo spaceship Cygnus might be capable of taking on that job. A recently docked Cygnus at the ISS will conduct the first US reboost test while in orbit, potentially providing an alternative option.
If Russia chooses to take immediate action and sever ties with its International Space Station partners, it’s unclear how that would work. The ISS was not designed to be divided.
“Many things are intertwined. So are we no longer allowed to use the Russian modules on this space station? Or vice versa, we don’t allow them to use our modules,” Handberg said.
“In the confined circumstances they’re in, that gets pretty bizarre.”
Handberg believes Russia is locked into the ISS until 2024, but there is always uncertainty with Putin.
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