MOSCOW (AP) – Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its orbital outpost, the country’s new space chief. He said Tuesday amid high tensions between Moscow and the West over the fighting in Ukraine.
The announcement, though unexpected, casts doubt on the future of the 24-year-old space station, with experts saying it would be extremely difficult—perhaps a “nightmare,” according to one account—to keep it operating without the Russians. NASA and its partners had hoped to keep it running until 2030.
“The decision was made to leave the station after 2024,” Yury Borisov, appointed this month to lead the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. “I think by then we will begin to form a Russian astronomical station,” he added.
The space station has long been a symbol of international collective action after the Cold War in the name of science but is now one of the last areas of cooperation between the United States and the Kremlin.
NASA officials said they have not yet heard directly from their Russian counterparts on the matter. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying the agency is “committed to the safe operation” of the space station through 2030 and continues to “build future capabilities to ensure our primary presence in low Earth orbit.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price called the announcement an “unfortunate development” given the “valuable professional collaboration our space agencies have enjoyed over the years.” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States was “exploring options” to deal with the Russian withdrawal.
Borisov’s statement reiterated previous statements of Russian space officials about Moscow’s intention to leave the space station after 2024, when current international arrangements for its operation will expire.
Russian officials have long talked about their desire to launch their own space station and have complained that wear and tear on the old International Space Station threatens safety and could make it difficult to extend its life.
Cost may also be a factor: With Elon Musk’s SpaceX now flying NASA astronauts to and from the space station, the Russian space agency has lost a major source of income. For years, NASA has been paying tens of millions of dollars per seat to ride Russian Soyuz rockets.
The Russian announcement is sure to raise speculation that it is part of Moscow’s maneuvering to win relief from Western sanctions on the conflict in Ukraine. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, said last month that Moscow could participate in negotiations on a possible extension of station operations only if the United States lifted its sanctions on Russia’s space industries.
Former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in response to Tuesday’s announcement: “Remember, Russia’s best game is chess.”
The space station is jointly operated by Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada. The first piece was put into orbit in 1998, and the outpost has been continuously inhabited Almost 22 years ago. It is used to conduct scientific research in zero gravity and to test technology for future trips to the Moon and Mars.
It usually has a crew of seven, spending months at a time aboard the station as it orbits 260 miles (420 kilometers) above Earth. Three Russians, three Americans and one Italian are on the plane now.
The complex, which is approximately $100 billion in length, is a football field and consists of two main sections, one operated by Russia and the other by the United States and other countries. It was not immediately clear what would need to be done on the Russian side of the complex to operate the space station safely once Moscow withdrew.
Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 straight days aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016, said the Russian statement “could be just more rant,” noting that the phrase “after 2024” is vague and open.
“I think Russia will survive as long as it can,” he said, “without the International Space Station it has no human spaceflight programme.” “Cooperation with the West also shows a measure of legitimacy to other non-aligned countries and their people, which Putin needs, because the war in Ukraine has damaged his credibility.”
Kelly said the design of the station would make it difficult but not impossible for the remaining nations to operate it if Russia pulled out.
Former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, who spent six months on the space station in 2014 and 2015, said the Russian withdrawal would be a “disaster” and send “an important statement to the world that they are unreliable.”
But Virts also said that Putin “has gone overboard, and we need to disengage them on the International Space Station.”
He said he was especially disappointed that three of the cosmonauts he had traveled with are now in the Russian parliament, or Duma, in support of the war in Ukraine.
Jordan Beam, a science historian at the University of Chicago, said the Russian statement “does not bode well for the future of the International Space Station,” adding that it “creates a constellation of uncertainties about station preservation that have no easy answers.”
“What would leaving look like?” Asked. “Will the last astronauts simply dismantle the Soyuz ship and return to Earth, leaving the Russian-made units attached? Will they render them inoperable before departure? Will NASA and its international partners have to negotiate their purchase and continue to use them? Can these units be maintained without Russian knowledge?”
Operating the station after saving the Russians “could be a nightmare depending on how hard Russia gets it to NASA and its remaining partners,” Beam said.
He said that if the station’s Russian components were disconnected or malfunctioned, the most pressing issue would be how to periodically boost the complex to maintain its orbit. Russian spacecraft arriving at the station with cargo and crew are used to help align the station and raise its orbit.
“It remains to be seen whether the Russians will, in fact, be able to launch and maintain their own independent station,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Russia has made no visible effort so far to develop its own space station, and the task appears increasingly daunting now amid the crisis in Ukraine and Western sanctions that have limited Russia’s access to Western technology.
Long before the International Space Station, the Soviets – and then the Russians – had a number of their own space stations, including Mir. Similarly, the United States had Skylab.
John Logsdon, founder and former director of the George Washington University Institute, said that NASA has plenty of time to prepare for a Russian withdrawal, given the threats from Moscow, and it would be neglected if it wasn’t thinking. about this for several years.
“One alternative is to declare victory with the station and use that as an excuse to get it out of orbit and put money into exploration,” he said, adding: “It is clear that its political value has declined over time.”
Marcia Dunn, a space writer for the Associated Press, wrote from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee and Tracy Brown contributed from Washington.