Russia says it will quit the International Space Station after 2024
By Kenneth Chang and Ivan Nehepurenko
The new head of Russia’s space agency announced Tuesday that Russia will leave the International Space Station after its current commitment expires at the end of 2024.
“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” said Yuri Borisov, who was appointed this month to run Roscosmos, a state-controlled corporation in charge of the country’s space program.
The pronouncement came during a meeting between Borisov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Borisov told Putin that Russia would fulfill its commitments through 2024. “I think that by this time we will begin to form the Russian orbital station,” he said.
Putin’s response: “Good.”
The first module of the International Space Station was launched in 1998, and astronauts have lived there since 2002. Built as a symbol of post-Cold War cooperation between the world’s two space superpowers, the partnership has weathered numerous ups and downs in bilateral relations between the United States and Russia.
Whether the station can operate without Russia’s involvement after 2024 is uncertain. The outpost in orbit consists of two sections, one led by NASA, the other by Russia. The two are interconnected. Much of the power on the Russian side comes from NASA’s solar panels, while the Russians provide propulsion to periodically raise the orbit.
But with tensions between the Washington and Moscow rising after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian space officials including Dmitry Rogozin, Borisov’s predecessor, had made declarations in recent months that Russia was planning to leave. But they left ambiguity about when or whether a final decision had been made. NASA officials, who want to extend operations of the space station through 2030, have expressed confidence that Russia would remain.
For the most part, operations on the space station have continued without disruption. In March, Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut, returned to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule as planned. NASA and Roscomos just finished an agreement that would give Russian astronauts seats on American-built spacecraft in exchange for NASA astronauts’ getting rides to orbit on Russian Soyuz rockets.
However, NASA this month strongly criticized Russia after Roscosmos distributed photographs of the three Russian astronauts on the space station holding the flags of Russian backed separatists in two provinces of Ukraine.
Russia has plans for its own space station, but Roscosmos has been financially strapped for years. After the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles in 2011, NASA had to buy seats on the Soyuz rockets, providing a steady stream of money to the Russians. That revenue dried up after SpaceX started providing transportation for NASA astronauts two years ago. Russia lost additional sources of revenue as a result of economic sanctions that prevented European and other nations’ companies from launching satellites on its rockets.
“Without cooperation with the West, the Russian space program is impossible in all its parts, including the military one,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military and space analyst.
Russia is also looking to cooperate more with China’s space program, which launched a laboratory module Sunday to add to its space station, Tiangong. But Tiangong is not in an orbit that can be reached from Russia’s launchpads.
“The prospect of cooperating with China is a fiction,” Luzin said. “The Chinese have looked at Russia as a prospective partner up until 2012 and have stopped since then. Today, Russia cannot offer anything to China in terms of space.”