Borisov Clarifies Russia’s Space Station Plans

Borisov Clarifies Russia’s Space Station Plans

The new head of Russia’s space agency, Yuri Borisov, clarified Russia’s space station plans today in an interview with Russian television. Russia is not planning to suddenly leave the International Space Station partnership in 2024 as some media reports said earlier this week, but is assessing how much longer the Russian modules can last and preparing for what comes next. He reiterated that Russia will fulfill its commitment to the other ISS partners and provide the required one-year’s notice when the time comes.

Yuri Borisov, Director General, Roscosmos.

Borisov was just appointed as Director General of the Roscosmos Space State Corporation on July 15. Formerly Deputy Prime Minister for aerospace and defense, on Tuesday he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his new capacity, making headlines when some media outlets reported he told Putin the decision had been made to leave ISS in 2024.

Later it became clear he said “after” 2024, an entirely different meaning since all the ISS partners will leave after 2024, it’s only a question of when.

Right now all are committed through 2024 except the United States, which has agreed to operate ISS through 2030. President Biden made that commitment on December 31 and Congress just codified it in law this week as part of the 2022 NASA Authorization Act. Japan, Canada, and the 11 European countries participating through the European Space Agency are expected to follow suit.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is optimistic Russia also will agree, but Russia’s stance has been unclear especially after a barrage of offensive tweets over the past several months by Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin.

The invasion of Ukraine on February 24 upended most cooperative space activities with Russia, but the ISS is an exception. Built as an interdependent facility, it would be extremely difficult to operate without both Russia and the United States working together. Despite the fractious geopolitical climate right now, the two countries just signed an agreement to launch Russian crews on U.S. spacecraft and U.S. crews on Russian spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

The same day the agreement was announced, Rogozin was replaced by Borisov.

As the new head of Roscosmos, Borisov’s conversation with Putin on Tuesday and the fact the Kremlin made it public garnered a great deal of interest. In an interview to Rossiya 24 TV today, he sought to clarify and expand upon what he’d said. The video and a transcript were posted on Roscosmos’s website.

Per Google Translate, Borisov explained he told Putin Russia would leave ISS “not from 2024, but after 2024. In Russian, these are two big differences.”

But he did point out that the ISS is aging. Two of the oldest modules were built by Russia: Zarya, launched in 1998, and Zvezda, in 2000.  Zarya actually counts as a U.S. module because the United States paid for it, but Russia built and owns Zvezda, also called the Service Module. Russia has newer modules as well, including Nauka, which just arrived last summer, but Borisov emphasized the older facilities are well past their warranties and cascading failures could occur.

“Today, the intensity of various kinds of emergencies, failure of equipment, the appearance of microcracks is beginning to increase,” he said.  Experts cannot predict “when this process will become an avalanche and create a real threat to the crew,” but it is “just possible after 2024, which is why I announced this period.”

He vowed Russia will follow the agreed-upon process and notify the other partners a year in advance of any plans to withdraw.

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk. Illustration credit: NASA

As NASA ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens said on Tuesday, Russia, like the United States, is looking at what comes next when ISS inevitably ends. The United States plans to rely on the private sector to build commercial space stations where NASA can lease what it needs.

Russia is also looking at a brand new space station equipped with the latest technology and scientific facilities as “economically expedient” in the next few years. From his point of view, the “lion’s share” of Russia’s scientific research on ISS is already completed “and we do not see any additional dividends by stretching this process until 2030.”

Still, Russia plans to be involved with ISS through the end of its life. At some point, it will have to be deorbited. NASA plans to use three Russian Progress cargo craft to lower its orbit and target it for reentry over the southern Pacific Ocean, again underscoring how closely the U.S. and Russia  are tied together on ISS. Borisov made that point and implied Russia will provide that deorbit capability.

Sadly to report, someday the life path of the ISS will stop and we will have to properly sink it. And in the opinion of our Western colleagues and our specialists, most likely, this will not be possible without Russian participation. We were the progenitors of this brainchild, we participated in all stages of its formation, today it is objectively aging, like everything else in this world. We will be responsible at all stages of the life cycle of this product.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, NASA has been stressing that day-to-day relationships among the international ISS crew (three Russians, three Americans, one European) and their ground-support teams around the world are unchanged. Borisov also insisted ISS is not affected by politics.

Now the political aspects. I’ll disappoint you, they don’t exist. And I don’t think they should be. The ISS project has enriched world science in the field of knowledge about the Universe and the Earth, has given all participants in this process new knowledge, and has united us to some extent. I believe that both today and in the future, such projects should be out of politics. I am very sorry that sometimes in this difficult time our joint projects in space, which are of interest to all mankind, begin to give a political coloring. It is not right.”

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