What’s Going to Happen to the International Space Station?

Russia plans to kick Americans off the station after 2020, four years earlier than the space mission’s intended end.

Expedition 39 Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA is carried in a chair to a medical tent just minutes after he and two other astronauts landed in their Soyuz TMA-11M on May 14 near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
May 14, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

Rus­si­an Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Ro­goz­in said Tues­day that, in re­sponse to Amer­ic­an sanc­tions im­posed after its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, his coun­try would ban the United States from the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion after 2020.

“The Rus­si­an seg­ment can ex­ist in­de­pend­ently from the Amer­ic­an one,” he said. “The U.S. one can­not.”

Ro­goz­in has a point, and it’s one that puts the fu­ture of U.S. space­flight in ques­tion. While the sta­tion is manned by an Amer­ic­an and Rus­si­an (and Ja­pan­ese and Ca­na­dian) crew, the only way to get there is on Rus­si­an Soy­uz space­craft. NASA pays Rus­sia $70.7 mil­lion per trip to ferry its as­tro­nauts to and from the sta­tion. While Rus­sia de­pends on NASA’s elec­tron­ics and com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy, which are more ad­vanced, trans­port­a­tion trumps tech out there.

Ro­goz­in’s re­marks may also be no more than polit­ic­al pos­tur­ing. NASA of­fi­cials say the agency has not re­ceived any of­fi­cial no­ti­fic­a­tion from Rus­sia about changes in co­oper­a­tion. It’s busi­ness as usu­al at the sta­tion right now: Three as­tro­nauts — Amer­ic­an, Rus­si­an and Ja­pan­ese — re­turned to earth from the sta­tion on Wed­nes­day after more than six months work­ing to­geth­er in space. Two Rus­si­ans and one Amer­ic­an re­main, and a new batch of as­tro­nauts is ex­pec­ted to launch in a few weeks.

Clara Moskow­itz at Sci­entif­ic Amer­ic­an points out that talk about cut­ting ties with the U.S. came from a Rus­si­an politi­cian, rather than an of­fi­cial at Ro­scos­mos, Rus­sia’s space agency, or the coun­try’s sci­entif­ic com­munity. “At the polit­ic­al level, people are start­ing to huff and puff,” space policy ex­pert Ro­ger Hand­berg of the Uni­versity of Cent­ral Flor­ida told Moskow­itz. “But at the agency level, they’re try­ing to keep it calm be­cause they un­der­stand they’re tied to­geth­er at this point.”

In Janu­ary, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­ten­ded the ISS mis­sion, sched­uled to end in 2017, un­til 2024. In March, when the Ukraine crisis began in earn­est, the idea that polit­ic­al ten­sion would af­fect one of hu­man­ity’s greatest achieve­ments was hard to be­lieve. Back then, NASA was “con­fid­ent that our two space agen­cies will con­tin­ue to work closely as they have throughout vari­ous ups and downs of the broad­er U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tion­ship,” a spokes­man for the agency said. After all, NASA’s re­la­tion­ship with Ro­scomos had pre­vi­ously with­stood the con­flict in Syr­ia and Rus­sia’s pro­tec­tion of NSA whistle-blower Ed­ward Snowden.

The rosy pic­ture of col­lab­or­a­tion has soured since then. In early April, NASA sus­pen­ded con­tact with Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment rep­res­ent­at­ives, cit­ing the coun­try’s “on­go­ing vi­ol­a­tion of Ukraine’s sov­er­eignty and ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity.” At the time, op­er­a­tions aboard the ISS were ex­empt from the sus­pen­sion. Now the fu­ture of those op­er­a­tions is in doubt.

That kind of talk is enough to change the situ­ation on the ground even as co­oper­a­tion con­tin­ues in space. Rus­sia’s threat of kick­ing U.S. as­tro­nauts off ISS could add more fuel to NASA’s part­ner­ship with private Amer­ic­an space­flight com­pan­ies, who are work­ing to launch as­tro­nauts from Amer­ic­an soil by 2017. U.S. law­makers have long called for end­ing Amer­ic­an de­pend­ence on Rus­si­an space trans­port, and the re­cent threats from Mo­scow could rally sup­port in Wash­ing­ton.

Weakened ties with Rus­sia could also mean that one of Amer­ica’s biggest polit­ic­al rivals on earth could be­come its biggest ally in space. China is not part of the ISS mis­sion, in part be­cause of U.S. op­pos­i­tion, but it re­cently suc­cess­fully trans­por­ted crew to and from a Chinese space sta­tion.

“China is an ob­vi­ous ad­di­tion to the in­ter­na­tion­al [hu­man space­flight] part­ner­ship, both for the ISS pro­gram and bey­ond,” Leroy Chiao, a former NASA as­tro­naut, told the Sen­ate Sci­ence and Space Sub­com­mit­tee last month.

So don’t worry, Rus­sia’s ban does not mean the ISS is go­ing to plum­met in­to the ocean any­time soon. It does, however, mean that even space is no longer im­mune to polit­ics.

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