Politics in Orbit: Russia and the Future of the International Space Station

International Space Station
The International Space Station (Credit: NASA).

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… with the battle ensuing on the ground in Ukraine, international tensions are boiling over into interesting spaces, including outer space. This week, we’ll be looking at 1) Russia’s partnership with NASA, and its role in the future of the International Space Station, 2) the politics of low-Earth orbit, 3) why Russia plays such a significant role in the space station’s operations, and 4) how NASA could get a helping hand from one of its commercial partners if things continue to go sour for its ongoing space operations with Russia.

Quote of the Week

“The American and Russian capabilities in space science and technology mesh; they interdigitate. Each is strong where the other is weak. This is a marriage made in heaven — but one that has been surprisingly difficult to consummate.”

-Carl Sagan

Before we get into our analysis this week, we briefly turn our attention toward the developing situation in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion began, The Debrief’s Tim McMillan has been providing updates with his recent pieces on The Battle For Kyiv: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, as well as how the Russian Government has threatened the media to accept an “alternate reality on the Ukrainian Invasion. Also, be sure to check out Tim’s Latest Update on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine here.

As always, we’ll have a complete listing of all our recent stories related to space, science, technology, and more at the end of this newsletter, and also be sure to check out what’s happening over on The Debrief’s YouTube channel for video news, interviews, and much more.

With that all behind us, it’s time to turn our attention toward how the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expanding well beyond just the battle in Ukraine, and even affecting the future of space operations aboard the International Space Station.


Russia and the Future of the International Space Station

Over the last several days, nations around the world have united in their condemnation of Russia after its President, Vladimir Putin, ordered his military forces to invade Ukraine last week.

On February 24, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke from the White House about the current round of sanctions being imposed against Russia in the aftermath of its movement against Ukraine.

“Between our actions and those of our Allies and partners, we estimate that we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports,” Biden said, saying that efforts from western nations would not only affect Russia’s military development over the next decade, but also “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”

Dimitry Rogozin
Dimitry Rogozin (CC 4.0)

Following Biden’s statement, Dmitry Rogozin, director of Russia’s Roscomos space agency, took to Twitter with his criticisms of the President’s remarks.

“Do you want to ban all countries from launching their spacecraft on the most reliable Russian rockets in the world? This is how you already do it by limiting exchanges between our cosmonaut and astronaut training centers,” Rogozin said in the Tweet.

“Or do you want to manage the ISS yourself?” Rogozin added.

In other words, the aftershocks of the conflict in Ukraine aren’t just being felt on Earth; now, the future of the International Space Station and its operations also appear to be in question as a result of the current tensions between nations.


Politics in Orbit

Following Rogozin’s Tweets, the Russian space agency issued an official statement this week regarding the prospects of further cooperation between it and NASA.

“Roscosmos currently has a government permission for operating the ISS only until 2024,” the Russian space agency said in the statement, as reported by state-owned Russian news agency TASS.

“The issue of extending the agreement in the current conditions causes our skepticism,” a statement from the Roscosmos press office added. “If we do not come to an agreement, this will have its effect on the international piloted space program.”

For its part, NASA has said that it plans to maintain its relationships with all of its current international partners, “including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station.”

“The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation,” the NASA statement added, confirming that “The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation.”

Just last October, Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, said that cooperative future missions between the Russian and U.S. space agencies were set to continue into the coming years, as the ISS completes what is expected to be its final decade in operation.

Kathy Leaders

At that time, Leuders said that Roscosmos “agreed to further the processing of our intergovernmental agreements where we eventually would be flying US crew members on the Soyuz and the Russian cosmonauts on the US SpaceX vehicle.”

While that relationship has lasted now for many years, and may continue despite the current upheaval resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that doesn’t mean it has always been easy… and things may only get rockier in the months ahead.


Russia’s Key Role in Supporting the ISS

“The ISS has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken,” reads a NASA statement outlining the international cooperation that has made operations aboard the ISS possible now for more than two decades.

The fact that NASA has long depended on Russia’s provision of vital components that help keep the ISS and its operations aloft makes the current relationship between Russia and the international community especially precarious for the U.S. space program, as well as its partners in other countries.

Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft (Credit: NASA).

Primarily, Russia’s involvement with current ISS operations focuses on propulsion, as well as guidance through occasional boosts with the help of Russia’s Progress supply ship, which brings cargo to the ISS. Without the aid of the reboosting Progress provides, the ISS would eventually succumb to the slow pull of Earth’s gravity, falling from its relatively low orbit at just 250 miles above Earth.

NASA and its other international partners could conceivably keep operations aboard the ISS running until its expected decommissioning in the years ahead, even if its relationship with Russia were to come to an end. However, the additional costs that each nation would incur could be prohibitive enough to risk further shortening the operational lifespan of the space station.

That is unless it gets an additional “reboost” from someplace other than Russia’s Progress cargo ship.


SpaceX to the Rescue?  

Although Dimitry Rogozin’s responses on Twitter to President Biden’s remarks were swift, so were Elon Musk’s responses to the Roscosmos chief:


It was not the first time that Musk has stepped into the fray since Russia invaded Ukraine. In recent days, the SpaceX founder also responded to Tweets from Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, asking that Starlink stations be sent to his country to allow access to the internet service Musk’s satellite constellation provides.

As of Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Musk had followed through with the request, and that the terminals had successfully arrived.

Musk’s tendency to put his money where his mouth is may end up proving very beneficial to the U.S. space agency going forward. With NASA’s space operations already receiving increased support from its commercial partners like SpaceX, Musk and other leading technologists could even find themselves in a position of filling a vital supporting role once held by Russia, if international relations continue to worsen.

Despite the uncertainty caused by Russia’s recent actions, one thing seems abundantly clear for NASA: operations aboard the International Space Station appear to be set to continue as planned… with, or without the help of Russia.

That wraps up this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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