Biden Commits to ISS Through 2030 Amid U.S.-Russian Tensions

Biden Commits to ISS Through 2030 Amid U.S.-Russian Tensions

NASA announced today that the Biden Administratoon is committed to operating the International Space Station through 2030, a six-year extension. The sudden statement comes one day after a tense conversation where Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told President Joe Biden that any more U.S.-imposed sanctions could result in a “complete rupture” in relations. Russia is a major partner in the ISS.

Calling the ISS a “beacon of peaceful international scientific collaboration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was “pleased that the Biden-Harris Administration has committed to continuing station operations through 2030.”

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. The earth-orbiting laboratory is composed of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS).

The USOS includes modules from Japan and Europe as well as Canada’s remote manipulator system, Canadarm2. ROS is comprised of Russian-built modules, although the first module that was launched, Zarya, was paid for by the United States and counts as U.S. equipment. Russia’s newest module, Nauka, launched in July, has a European robotic arm.

The International Space Station.  This is a mosaic of images taken from Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround after undocking November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

The USOS provides electric power for the entire facility with its massive solar arrays, and it has Control Moment Gyros (CMGs) to help maintain the ISS’s correct orientation in space. Engines on Russia’s Zvezda Service Module and Progress cargo ships are used to maintain both orientation and to periodically reboost the ISS to its proper altitude.

Commands are sent to the ISS through mission control centers in Moscow and Houston.

The point is that ISS is not just international, but interdependent. It is difficult to see how it could function if the United States and Russia parted ways.

Russia joined the existing U.S.-European-Canadian-Japanese space station partnership in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened new opportunities for space cooperation. An updated Intergovernmental Agreement was signed in 1998 that governs the program. The first modules were launched that year and the first crew, two Russians and one American, boarded in November 2000. ISS has been continuously occupied by international crews ever since. The major phase of construction ended in 2010, although newer modules have been added more recently, including Nauka, a 20-tonne science module.

The United States leads the partnership and negotiates with the others on issues like how long it will operate.

In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress committed the United States to operating ISS “through at least 2020.” That was extended to 2024 in the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act. Several bills have been introduced since then to further extend it to 2030, but none have cleared Congress. Most recently the extension was included in the Senate-passed 2021 NASA Authorization Act, part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, but no action has been taken in the House.

Today’s abrupt announcement on a federal holiday comes one day after Biden and Putin had a “serious and substantive” telephone conversation about the situation in Ukraine where Russian troops are massed at the border. Biden has said that if Russia invades Ukraine the United States and its allies will respond with more economic sanctions. A Russian official told reporters later that Putin warned Biden that any such sanctions “could result in a ‘complete rupture’ of relations” between the two countries, according to the New York Times.

U.S.-Russian relations began to deteriorate in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, part of Ukraine. The major impact on the space program was Congress requiring the United Launch Alliance to end its dependence on Russian RD-180 engines to launch national security satellites on its Atlas V rocket. ULA is developing a new rocket, Vulcan, with engines built by the U.S. company Blue Origin, but is still using Atlas Vs with RD-180s now.

Throughout years of deepening geopolitical tensions, the ISS has remained an oasis of cooperation. At least one American and one Russian are aboard the ISS at any given time and often several of each. The current crew complement is four Americans, two Russians, and one European.

The current ISS crew, Expedition 66 (L-R): Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (U.S.), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (U.S.), Mark Vande Hei (U.S.), Kayla Barron (U.S.), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany). Screengrab.

U.S. astronauts have flown to and from the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for two decades. NASA paid for most of those flights, but NASA and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos are close to signing a crew-exchange agreement where Americans will fly on Soyuz in return for Russians making the trip on the U.S. Crew Dragon, with no exchange of funds. Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on December 8 that cosmonaut Anna Kikina, the only woman in the Roscosmos corps, would fly on a Crew Dragon in 2022. NASA would not confirm that at the time, however, saying only that details are being finalized.

Asked why the ISS extension was announced today and if it is related to the Biden-Putin call, a NASA spokesperson told only that it has “been in the works for months.”

A White House commitment to 2030 falls short of setting the date in law, but demonstrates U.S. intentions at least as long as Biden is President. Whether the other partners, especially Russia, agree will be interesting to watch. ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher, welcomed the news, but it will be the 11 ESA members who participate in the program who make the decision.

This article has been updated.

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