Russia Agrees to Operate ISS Through 2028

Russia Agrees to Operate ISS Through 2028

The Russian government has agreed to extend operations of the International Space Station through 2028 according to Russia’s state news agency TASS. Russia is the last of the ISS partners to agree to operations beyond 2024, although all the others adopted 2030 as the new end point. The 2028 date coincides with the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS module, Zarya, built by Russia but paid for by the United States.

TASS reported that Roscosmos Director General Yuri Borisov sent letters to NASA and the other ISS partners yesterday that the Russian government approved the extension to 2028.

The United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency are partners in the ISS. NASA did not confirm receipt of the letter to by press time.

The International Space Station. Mosaic created with imagery from Expedition 66. Credit: NASA

The ISS was designed as an integrated facility with a Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and a U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) that includes modules from Europe and Japan plus Canada’s robotic Canadarm2 on the exterior of the station. The ROS and USOS are interdependent. USOS relies on Russian propulsion systems on the Zvezda module and Progress cargo vehicles to raise the ISS orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag and to avoid space debris. ROS relies on U.S solar arrays for electrical power.

President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a permanently occupied space station with international partners in his 1984 State of the Union address. It was a period of intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was operating its sixth successful space station at the time, Salyut 7.

Europe, Japan and Canada quickly joined the United States in what was known as the Space Station Freedom program. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, new opportunities for U.S.-Soviet cooperation emerged that expanded in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1993, Russia joined the U.S.-led space station program, renamed the International Space Station.

At the time, congressional support for the program was waning following years of overruns and schedule delays. Russia’s participation was supposed to lower costs and accelerate the schedule, but financial difficulties in Russia led to NASA paying Russia to build Zarya (Dawn). Launched in 1998, it is the oldest part of ISS and counts as a U.S. module.

The main phase of ISS construction was completed in 2010 although new modules from both the United States and Russia have arrived since and more are planned.

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. Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka) arrived in 2021 and has a European Robotic Arm (ERA) similar to Canada’s Canadarm2 (shown here as the Mobile Servicing System). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, MRM-2 as Poisk, and Russian Node Module as Prichal. Illustration credit: NASA

NASA is hoping commercially-developed space stations will be available by 2030 to replace ISS and it can become just one of many customers using them. But it wants to keep ISS operating until then.

All the partners agreed to operate ISS until 2020 and then 2024. In December 2021, President Biden announced the plan to extend that to 2030. Japan was the first to agree in November 2022, followed by Europe and Canada.

Until now, Russia has been the holdout.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 upended most space cooperation between it and the other ISS partners. Europe, in particular, withdrew from its close collaboration with Russia on science missions and launch vehicles.

The head of Roscosmos at the time, Dmitry Rogozin, issued a series of offensive tweets implying Russia would walk away from the ISS, but he was replaced in July 2022 by Borisov who is taking a much milder tone.

The ISS remains the one haven for space cooperation in large part because it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to separate the Russian and American segments. But NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also often points to the success of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where three NASA astronauts docked with two Soviet cosmonauts for two days of combined operations during the height of the Cold War, as an example of when countries deeply at odds decided to use the space program to demonstrate they could rise above earthly rivalries for a greater good.

Borisov was quoted by TASS as saying “The ISS program is the largest and the most successful international space project and I am glad that such a unique laboratory will continue its operation and will contribute to implementing humankind’s most audacious plans of space exploration.”

The Expedition 69 crew currently aboard the ISS, L-R: Frank Rubio (NASA), Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos), Sultan Alneyadi (UAE), Woody Hoburg (NASA), Steve Bowen (NASA), Andrey Fedyaev (Roscosmos), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

Russia is somewhat concerned about the structural integrity of its modules, which had 15-year design lives. A persistent small air leak in one of them first noticed in 2020 poses no danger to the crew, but could be a signal of troubles ahead. Roscosmos initially declined to agree to the extension in part because it was waiting for a review by its engineers of the status of the hardware, which TASS said today was completed in February.

Still, if Russia departs in 2028 that leaves two more years when the U.S. and the other partners want to continue operations while commercial space stations are built to replace it. And NASA was expecting to use three Russian Progress spacecraft to deorbit the ISS, but if Russia leaves in 2028 it will need another plan. In fact, NASA is requesting funding starting in FY2024 to develop a deorbit space tug, which could cost $1 billion.

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