Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station at the end of 2024

As a model of international cooperation bringing together Europe, Japan, the United States and Russia, the ISS began to come together in 1998 with the launch of the Russian Zarya module, followed by NASA’s Unity module a month later.

Full assembly of the station was not completed until 2011. Its retirement was planned for 2024, but NASA estimated it could operate until 2030. This expansion was subject to congressional approval. Biden’s election confirmed this, and it was the Biden-Harris administration that decided to extend the activities of the International Space Station until 2030 on December 31.

The question of deorbiting this giant aging space object was to be considered in 2030. It is a delicate and, above all, very expensive operation, as this video from CNES in May 2021 explains.

This was without taking into account the launch of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, which will poison the relationship between the EU and the US with one of its most important partners, which will put this issue back on the table sooner than expected.

Russia plays a key role in keeping the station in orbit.

“The Russians have been good partners”

The Russian announcement to withdraw from the ISS comes ten days after the appointment at the head of the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) of a new chief, Yuri Borissov, who replaced Dmitri Rogozin, known for his abrasive style and outrageous nationalism.

“We will without a doubt fulfill all our obligations to our partners” of the ISS, declares Yuri Borissov, received in the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin, “but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made”.

A few minutes later, NASA said it had not received a notification. “official” of such withdrawal after that date.

“We have not received any official statement from our partner regarding today’s news”said Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS at NASA, at a space conference in Washington. “So we will discuss their plans further.”

Asked if the US wanted the Russians to withdraw from the ISS, Robyn Gatens replied: “No, absolutely not. They have been great partners, as have all of our partners, and we want to continue together, as a partnership, to operate the space station for the decade.”

The space station is the result of a huge international collaboration, and NASA has repeatedly said that it could not function without the contributions of the various partners.

Transition to a commercial offer

But NASA has already begun preparing for a transition to commercial stations. It is already helping in their development and it wants to rent their services when the ISS is retired. This is how it announced in December 2021 to allocate the following amounts to three private companies:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, for $130 million
  • Nanoracks LLC, in Houston for $160 million
  • Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Dulles, Va., for $125.6 million

“The Russians, like us, are thinking about what will come next for them”exposes Robyn Gatens. “Just as we are planning a transition to commercial LEO stations after 2030, they have a similar project. So they are thinking about that transition as well.”

“I think that by that time we will start creating the Russian orbital station”who will be “top priority” of the national space program, Yuri Borissov continued.

“The future of Russian manned flights must first of all be based on a systemic and balanced scientific program, so that each flight enriches us with knowledge in the field of space.”he specified.

What future for human space travel?

For Russian space analyst Vitali Egorov, this decision will mean “a hiatus of several years for Russian manned flights”because Russia is far from having its own infrastructure in orbit.

“There will be no Russian orbital station neither in 2024 nor in 2025 nor in 2026”he told AFP: “creating a good orbital station in three years is almost unreal”. According to Vitaly Egorov, even “with the most generous funding, it will take at least ten years”.

Until his appointment as head of Roscosmos in mid-July, Yuri Borissov, 65, held the portfolio of deputy prime minister in charge of the Russian military-industrial complex, which includes the space sector.

He indicated in front of Vladimir Putin that he wanted to provide “above all, space services necessary for the Russian economy”, especially with reference to navigation, communication and transmission of data. So many areas where Moscow lags behind the Americans.

Russian-Western cooperation in the space field has been weighed down by the offensive that Russia has launched since February 24 against its Ukrainian neighbor.

The Western sanctions imposed in the aftermath partly affect the Russian aerospace industry and risk having consequences for the ISS, some of which could disrupt supplies.

Cooperation impaired by the war in Ukraine

Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos, had already hinted that because of this, Russia would give up on the idea of ​​extending the life of the ISS until 2030. He had confirmed in March that without the Russians, the ISS will crash on Earth, because only the Russian side has the means to correct the orbit of the 500-ton structure.

If Russia has the ambition to relaunch independently in the space race, it has nevertheless for years been confronted with serious problems, especially endemic corruption, which slows the country’s programs and innovation.

Until the offensive against Ukraine, space cooperation had not suffered too much from Russian-Western tensions.

But in recent months, several projects have borne the brunt of the war in Ukraine.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced the suspension of the Russian-European ExoMars mission and the search for alternatives for the launch of four other missions.

Moscow, for its part, has suspended the launch of OneWeb satellites, which have turned to the American company SpaceX of Elon Musk.

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