Several media outlets reported this news last weekend, basing their stories on an interview with Rogozin, the head of Russia’s federal space agency. Roscosmos — recently gave on Russian state television. But, like Eric Berger of Ars Technica NotedRogozin’s words are not really a threat.
“The decision has already been made, we don’t have to talk about it publicly,” Rogozin said, according to Bloomberg. “I can only say this: in accordance with our obligations, we will inform our partners of the end of our work on the ISS with one year’s notice.”
This is not an announcement of departure from the program – just an acknowledgment that Roscosmos will notify other partners if such a decision is made. (ISS partners, including Roscosmos, are currently contracted to operate the laboratory in orbit until the end of 2024. NASA wants the station to continue until the end of 2030, a desire supported by US President Joe Biden.)
International Space Station: Facts, History and Tracking
What Rogozin wants
Rogozin’s statements should be seen from a particular angle: he is angry at the economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of ukraine and wants to lift them. He has spoken out against the sanctions on several occasions over the past few months, repeatedly suggesting that their existence jeopardizes the partnership with the ISS.
For example, on February 24 – the day the invasion began – Rogozin said on Twitter that the sanctions could “destroy” cooperation on the ISS. And on April 2, he tweeted (in Russian): “I believe that the restoration of normal relations between the partners of the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of sanctions illegal”.
(Rogozin has since protected his tweets so that only approved followers can see them. That’s why we don’t link them here.)
These statements raise the prospect of Roscosmos leaving the partnership with the ISS, but certainly do not promise that such a move is imminent. And it’s hard to know how seriously to take any threat from Rogozin, whether explicit or implicit, because he’s a loud character prone to making hyperbolic statements.
In April 2014, for example, when he was Russian deputy prime minister, Rogozin suggested that the United States use a trampoline to bring its astronauts to the space station. This comment, a reference to NASA’s total dependence at the time on Russia Soyuz spacecraft for the crewed orbital flight, came shortly after the imposition of sanctions on Russia for a previous invasion of Ukraine. During this invasion in February 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, which it still holds today.
(The United States can now send astronauts to and from the ISS, thanks to SpaceXwhich launched its first crewed mission to the orbiting lab in May 2020. Right after that liftoff, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk applauded Rogozin, saying: “The trampoline works!”)
Related: 8 Ways SpaceX Transformed Spaceflight
What are the chances?
So what are the chances that Russia will actually leave the ISS program angry in the relatively near future? Not high, according to NASA chief Bill Nelson.
“They’re not retiring,” Nelson said Tuesday (May 3) during a U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, as reported by SpacePolicyOnline.
“I see nothing in the very balanced professional relationship between cosmonauts and astronauts, between Mission Control in Moscow and Houston, in the training of Russian cosmonauts in America and American astronauts in Moscow and Baikonur [the Russian-run cosmodrome in Kazakhstan]“, added Nelson.
“I don’t see anything that has interrupted this professional relationship, as horrible as it is. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is waging a war with such disastrous results in Ukraine,” he said. “We see every reason why the Russians will continue on the space station in the immediate future and, of course, we personally hope that they will continue with us. until 2030.”
This professional relationship came to light on March 30, when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei came back to earth with two cosmonauts in a Soyuz spacecraft after an American record stay of 355 days on board the ISS. Landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan, and everything that followed, went off without a hitch, says former NASA astronaut Scott Kellyciting conversations with Americans who were there.
“They said you wouldn’t have known the difference with how they were treated, the relationship there,” Kelly told Space.com last month.
Kelly – who has four spaceflights under his belt, including a 340-day stay aboard the ISS from March 2015 to March 2016 – is a vocal critic of the Russian invasion. He called Putin a murderous dictator and one war criminal, and he got into a Twitter fight with Rogozin shortly after the invasion began. (Kelly stopped targeting Rogozin directly, complying with a request from NASA officials fearing that such squabbles could harm the ISS partnership.)
Kelly is obviously not a fan of Rogozin, but he pointed out that Roscosmos is much bigger than a man.
“I know NASA is committed to maintaining this partnership with Russia,” Kelly said. “I know most people in the Russian space agency are too. I’m not too sure about Rogozin, but others I know who work there are good people.”
Most of Russia’s other space partnerships collapsed following the invasion of Ukraine. For example, Europe recently announced that its Mars life-hunting rover Rosalind Franklin would no longer launch atop a Russian Proton rocket and land on a Russian-built platform, as previously planned – measures which will probably delay the takeoff of the six-year-old rover, to 2028. Russia no longer sells Russian-made rocket engines to American companies, and Soyuz rockets no longer leave the European spaceport in French Guiana as they once did.
Russia may therefore wish to remain in the ISS partnership to avoid further deterioration of the country’s civilian space program, at least until it has other options, some experts have suggested.
“Just to sum up the discussion: Roscosmos will retain the ISS for as long as technically and politically possible. The objective is to maintain the ISS until the Russian station is ready, which [is] realistically unlikely before the 2030s,” said journalist and author Anatoly Zak, who runs RussianSpaceWeb.com, said via Twitter on Wednesday (May 4), referring to the project Russian orbital gas station.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.