In-orbit real estate is becoming a little more cluttered. Back in 2019, India announced that it would not join the International Space Station—instead, it would build and launch its own orbital laboratory. In mid-June, China successfully launched astronauts to their new space station. And throughout 2021, the Russian government has threatened to do the same.
Russia has been a critical part of the ISS since its inception. The first segment of the ISS was Russian and was launched aboard a Russian proton rocket in 1998. Two-thirds of the Expedition 1 crew—the first team to reside in the ISS—was Russian. The agreement initially governing the ISS left Russia in charge of key altitude control capabilities, some life support modules, and the on-orbit shelter. Russia has also historically provided half of the station’s crew. The station itself is also separated into two main segments: one for Russia and one for the U.S. and the other partners. And in a more abstract sense, the ISS has provided a rather stable outlet for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia even during particularly tense periods.
But in April, in response to ongoing American sanctions and new ones imposed by the Biden administration, Roscosmos—the Russian space agency—called for the Russian state to leave the ISS. It reiterated this position in June while discussing plans for Russia’s own space station. While the current agreement for the ISS ends in 2024, most of the five core partners (the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency) are working on an extension until at least 2028. NASA may even try to extend the life of the space station for longer by replacing key pieces of station infrastructure—or use planned module additions to create a long-term replacement.
Roscosmos has repeatedly and publicly claimed that the aging infrastructure of the space station is putting its cosmonauts at risk; however, the evidence backing these claims is mixed. It is true that malfunctions in the Russian portion of the ISS have occurred, like an oxygen leak back in September 2020. But to say that these maintenance needs are actively threatening cosmonauts might be a stretch—the ISS crew was able to fix the oxygen leak and was never in any serious danger. Not to mention when real danger presents itself, ISS crewmembers can head for a Russian Soyuz escape pod.
And while some Russian space actors have expressed concern over the state of Russia’s modules, other space experts like former NASA engineer Keith Cowing point out that overcoming malfunctions and completing maintenance work is just a part of space exploration. It turns out, operating complex machinery in space is in fact fraught with challenges—no matter how old or new your craft or station is.
Still, the U.S. is highly reliant on Russia to play its part in maintaining the space station—especially since it has joint control over many key systems. So, a verifiable threat from Russia to pull out of the project could truly threaten the longevity of the station.
But it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Russia to pull out entirely. Rather, this threat reeks of political and/or financial posturing by the Kremlin. For one thing, the Russians plan to launch one of their largest-ever contributions—Nauka, aka the Multipurpose Laboratory Module—to the ISS this month (more than a decade late following technical and budget issues). Furthermore, they also recently launched smaller module additions to the orbiting laboratory. Does that sound like someone leaving to you?
It’s also doubtful that Roscosmos—an agency facing budget decreases as it struggles to launch new hardware—could thrive in space on its own. In 2015, the Russian government’s decadal planning process provided less than half of the expected budget for Roscosmos. This budget was further cut in 2020, and these constraints have stifled multiple Russian space projects. As one former Roscosmos official put it to France24 earlier this year: “Russia doesn’t have any new spacecraft, there is only a model.”
Given that Nauka suffered from massive time delays and underfunding, it seems unlikely the Russians will have their own station operational anytime soon, let alone by the middle of this decade. Russia itself has estimated the station wouldn’t be in orbit until 2030. Roscosmos’ entire yearly budget is pretty much equal to the 12 percent budget hike NASA is receiving in 2021. Not to mention, NASA chief Bill Nelson claimed in June that many Russian government officials don’t agree with leaving the ISS and that “the space workers, they want to continue with the Americans.”
So what, then, is motivating the Russians to make the threat? Almost certainly money. Some state-level anger about U.S. sanctions. And maybe China’s new orbital facility.
Since the end of the NASA space shuttle program, Russia has made a great deal of money transporting U.S. astronauts into orbit via its Soyuz spacecrafts. NASA payments to Roscosmos for those trips totaled nearly $4 billion between 2011 and 2019. That was manageable when Roscosmos reached its budget peak of nearly $10 billion in 2013, but it has dropped considerably since then. In 2018 the budget was just $4.17 billion—which is higher still than the just over $2 billion Roscosmos received in 2020. But now private companies are able to ferry astronauts for the U.S., greatly reducing the importance (and value) of the Russian Soyuz capability. And while NASA signed a deal in 2020 to reserve extra seats on Soyuz launches, this monetary well is running dry for Roscosmos. With that funding source gone, the Russians are likely desperate to raise capital elsewhere. And being part of the ISS is expensive: Russia expected to spend roughly $4.1 billion in maintenance costs between 2016 and 2025. Perhaps Russia hopes that by threatening to leave, the country hopes to gain a new source of financial commitments from NASA to help its space budget now that the Soyuz isn’t bringing in the big bucks. Some space writers have speculated that Russia could threaten to leave and then ask to receive maintenance fees to keep its systems on the ISS operational. This seems plausible given that Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin (who is himself currently under U.S. sanctions) openly expressed concerns about paying to maintain the ISS and establish the Russian station at the same time—which Rogozin also admitted was almost certainly going to be necessary to launch a national station.
This isn’t the first time Russia has threatened to leave the ISS. Back in 2015, Roscosmos began discussing plans to leave the ISS in 2024. This was at least partially due to tense relations between the U.S. and Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. During hearings on Capitol Hill, then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden suggested to Congress that if that happened, the U.S. would just leave too. More likely, however, U.S. astronauts and those from NASA partners like Japan and Europe would have to pick up significant slack in the day-to-day operation of the space station. Russia could also choose to detach some modules to pair up with its new space station. Even if the U.S. did have to send up more astronauts to fill out the ISS crew, the financial hit likely wouldn’t be onerous enough for immediate decommissioning, as the U.S. already covers about 75 percent of the current annual costs for the ISS.
The real concern if ISS relations break down is that it might launch a new space race. Not only has Russia pledged to build its own station, but it has a signed memorandum of plans with China to consider establishing a joint lunar base. It has also worked with the Chinese government on their newly launched space station. So, while the ISS has preserved a general sense of neutrality in space exploration over the last couple of decades, a breakdown in the station’s relations could allow politics and overt nationalism to creep back into the orbital environment.