Russia Reiterates Plans to Leave ISS After 2024, Build New Russian Space Station

Russia Reiterates Plans to Leave ISS After 2024, Build New Russian Space Station

The new head of Russia’s space agency reiterated today what his predecessor said in the past that Russia plans to leave the International Space Station and build its own space station. The new director, Yuri Borisov, said the decision has been made to leave the ISS “after 2024,” but was not specific about when. The United States and Russia just signed an agreement to fly each other’s crew members to and from the ISS through June 2025. The White House and NASA stressed they have received no official notification of Russian plans to withdraw.

Borisov’s appointment as head of Russia’s Space State Corporation Roscosmos was abruptly announced on July 15, replacing Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin had been Deputy Prime Minister for the defense and aerospace sectors before Russian President Vladimir Putin reassigned him to be Director General of Roscosmos in 2018 in what was widely viewed as a demotion. Interestingly, it was Borisov who replaced Rogozin as Deputy Prime Minister and now appears to be on the same career path.

Especially after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of more sanctions against Russia’s aerospace industry, Rogozin issued a long series of vitriolic tweets threatening to leave the ISS. One included a particularly offensive Roscosmos-produced video showing Russia separating its segment of the ISS from the rest and leaving a U.S. astronaut there to fend for himself.

Yuri Borisov, Director General, Roscosmos. Photo credit: Kremlin website, July 26, 2022.

Against that backdrop, the Kremlin’s publication of a conversation between Putin and Borisov is mild. Per Google Translate, the discussion was about priorities for the Russian space program, which Borisov said were providing “the Russian economy with the necessary space services” including navigation, communication, data transmission, and meteorologic and geodetic information.

He added “let’s not forget about scientific space.” As for human spaceflight “the main priorities will be made on the creation of the Russian orbital station.”

He then told Putin: “you know that we are working within the framework of international cooperation on the International Space Station. Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made. I think that by this time we will begin to form the Russian orbital station.”

Russia has been contemplating building a Russian Orbital Space Station (ROSS) for many years. It has considerable experience building space stations, but funding for a new one is problematical. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971 and operated six more after that (Salyut 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and Mir) before Russia joined the United States, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries in the International Space Station program after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. (The United States launched its first space station, Skylab, in 1973, but it was occupied by just three crews during 1973 and 1974.)

The first ISS modules were launched in 1998 and the first crew arrived in November 2000. The facility has been permanently occupied by international crews ever since including at least one American and one Russian.

The ISS has a Russian Operating Segment and a U.S. Operating Segment that includes modules and other hardware from Europe, Japan and Canada. The two segments are co-dependent. For example, Russia provides the propulsion systems needed to periodically boost the ISS’s orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag and to avoid space debris, while the U.S. segment provides electrical power.

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

The ISS partners agreed to operate ISS through 2020 and later extended that to 2024. The United States now is leading an effort to get agreement to extend it again to 2030. President Biden made that commitment on December 31, 2021 and Congress is debating a 2022 NASA Authorization Act right now that would codify that date in law. The bill, embedded in the CHIPS+ legislation, could clear Congress this week.  Japan, Canada, and Europe appear likely to agree to 2030 as well.

The question for years has been whether Russia would stick with the program. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is optimistic it will and Russia’s actions, if not words, suggest it’s there for a while. Less than a year ago it launched a brand-new science module, Nauka. On July 15, the same day Borisov was named head of Roscosmos, the United States and Russia signed a crew exchange or seat swap agreement where Russian cosmonauts will fly on U.S. spacecraft and Americans will fly on Soyuz spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. Under negotiation for years, a NASA official said today the agreement runs through June 30, 2025.

NASA and the ISS National Lab are holding a three-day conference in Washington, D.C. right now to highlight the scientific research conducted on the ISS. NASA’s ISS Program Director, Robyn Gatens, said this morning that NASA has not received any official notification about Russia’s plans. ISS will not last forever — the earliest modules are already 24 years old — and Gatens pointed out that Russia is looking at what comes next just as NASA and the other partners are doing.

Robyn Gatens, ISS Program Director, NASA. Photo credit: NASA

“I think the Russians, just like us, they’re thinking ahead to what’s next for them. And as we’re planning for transition after 2030 to commercially owned and operated space stations in low Earth orbit, they have a similar plan. And so they’re thinking about that transition as well. So we haven’t received any official word from the partner as to the news today and so we’ll be talking more about their plan going forward.”

At a separate event today hosted by the Space Transportation Association, Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche noted that ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano and Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations Ken Bowersox were just in Moscow last week for the signing of the crew exchange agreement. NASA has other staff in Russia and everyday working relationships are unchanged.

This afternoon, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “we saw their comments … [and] we’re exploring options to mitigate the potential impacts … if Russia does withdraw. For our part, we remain committed to working with ISS partners to ensure the safe operation of the ISS and the astronauts who are on board.”

NASA Administrator Nelson later issued this statement:

NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is coordinating with our partners. NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.

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