Our Space

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti works outside the space station’s Russian segment to configure the new European robotic arm. 

You may have heard it on the news that Russia plans to leave the International Space Station (ISS) after 2024. So, let’s take a minute to discuss the ramifications of this announcement.

First off, as of this writing there has not been an official communique with NASA, only the announcement of the new “space boss” in Russia (the previous one was just recently canned, which is oddly sad because he was a contentious kind of fella who would get into the most entertaining Twitter feuds with astronauts and space executives alike). And while it sounded really official, “after 2024” is really not very specific. It could be Jan. 1, 2025, or the end of 2030, which is when the ISS is slated for de-orbiting anyway.

But let’s assume for a moment that the target date is indeed earlier. That’s when the logistical nightmare starts.

The ISS is made up of segments and parts from all of its member countries, and they are all incredibly interconnected. You couldn’t just undock the Russian modules and make two space stations. For starters, all the power that the ISS runs on is produced by the solar panels on the US segments. On the other hand, the all-important propulsion system for the ISS depends on the Russian modules, and those are controlled by Russian ground stations, so you can’t just take them over. While it’s theoretically possible to use other means to raise the orbit of the ISS or dodge a piece of space junk, the Russian propulsion systems are a whole lot more powerful and always available. There was a recent test for using a docked Cygnus cargo craft to boost the ISS’ orbit which was very successful, but that’s only possible when there is an actual cargo craft available, and it’s also nowhere near as strong.

So, you can’t just disconnect the Russian parts and tack them onto, say, a new Russian space station, and you can’t run the Russian parts independently and keep the hatch closed between them (and besides, that really sounds silly and Cold-War-ish). Puzzling out what you can and can’t use on an orbiting space station will cripple the entire operation.

On the flip side, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) have just negotiated a seat swap – where US astronauts get to ride on a Soyuz and Russian cosmonauts get to ride on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. Arrangements like that are mutually beneficial, as it increases flexibility on launch dates and vehicles, and it’s always a good idea to have options. Yes, you want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but why limit yourself when you can benefit from others’ experience and infrastructure?

Eventually, Russia — like all the ISS member nations — will want to put up their own space station, but there’s no way they’re going to have one ready before 2028 at the earliest. It would be a tremendous waste of money — the investment into the ISS has already been made, and it’s not like you can just sell your property to the highest bidder. Plus, it’s not just the ISS — there is a whole huge industry attached to the Soyuz capsule and launch systems, and mothballing the entire system for four years and then rebuilding it from scratch, or having it idle the whole time is just not cost-effective. Besides, it’s a use-it-or-lose-it endeavor in many ways: you can only simulate missions for so long, and without innovation and new developments an entire world of technology is doomed to stagnation.

So, at this point it’s probably wise to wait and see. Space is a complicated environment to work in, it’s very expensive and it takes time to get anything done because safety ain’t cheap. It’s also a great unifier; no matter the difference in political thought or allegiance, in space you have to work together, and international ventures spread the cost around a good bit thus multiplying the benefits. We’re sure the Chinese are doing fascinating stuff on their space station, but due to their exclusive and very secretive space program we’ll never know. And that’s a real shame.

There’s always some cool science happening on the ISS. While certain experiments are spearheaded by specific countries, everybody there works together as a team. Just last week for the first time a female European astronaut partnered up with a Russian cosmonaut for a historic spacewalk. For current updates on what’s going on in the orbiting outpost check https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html — you’ll find all the latest reports, blogs, videos and images, science news and links in one place!

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com . 

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