Given the all-but-declared new cold war between the United States and Russia, it may have seemed unsurprising that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government would announce plans to pull out of its decades-long partnership with the International Space Station, the orbiting laboratory that allows us here on Earth to conduct research in microgravity, biology, physics and other scientific fields.
But it is surprising, and troubling, not only for the space station’s future, but for international relations as well.
Russia is the United State’s major partner on the space station. What is known as the Russian Orbital Segment was built in Russia and is operated by Russian crew members. It handles such key space station components as guidance, navigation and control. Russian, American and other international partners — the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan — have frequently had astronauts aboard the station since it went into low-Earth orbit over 20 years ago.
It was a big deal when, in the early 1980s, the Russians agreed to stop their struggling efforts to build a space station on their own and instead to cooperate with the international community, led by the U.S. The agreement was accompanied by much fanfare, with then Vice President Al Gore leading an American delegation that met with top Russian space and government officials.
Space is a hostile environment to humans, so the space station had to be constructed in huge parts, lifted into orbit by mighty rockets and assembled by the international partners in a series of exhausting space walks. Human habitation of the ISS began in late 2000, aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-31, which had launched that October from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Can you imagine anything like that happening today?
Although the Russians have been fully cooperative over the decades, they have from time to time talked openly of building their own space station and going their own way. NASA officials have generally paid little attention, ascribing it to Russia’s almost constant need to remain competitive with the U.S.
But late last month, the Russians began talking once again about their own station. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, published a long interview with a top Russian space official saying that the agency wants to build, and launch by 2028, its own space station. But on the same day the interview was published, Russia also announced that its crew members on the existing station were working on a cardiac research program designed to help doctors treat heart disease.
Publicly, NASA officials are shrugging off Russia’s latest claims, and said the U.S. would continue to act as if nothing had been said about a new station. The work of disconnecting the Russian parts of the existing station would be monumental, and take years. And, NASA officials point out, given Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and the international economic sanctions against the country, it is unknown how Russia could afford to build its own station, which has cost the international partners many billions of dollars.
But NASA and U.S. government officials now have to deal with Putin, who has done more to tear down U.S-Russia relations than any leader since Nikita Khrushchev snuck missiles into Cuba in the early 1960s. NASA and our government also know that the space station cannot last forever, and that at some point a new one will be needed as a stopping-off point on our way to Mars and maybe elsewhere in our galaxy.
As a result, there is more of a sense of concern this time about Russia and its future space intentions. Will the Russians fly away? That concern has been voiced in recent weeks.
“We are exploring options to mitigate the potential impacts on the ISS beyond 2024 if Russia does withdraw,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news conference. “For our part, we remain committed to working with ISS partners to ensure the safe operation of the ISS and the astronauts aboard.”
The space station would likely continue to do its job without the Russians if they really do withdraw. But beyond the important objectives of space exploration, Russia’s departure would signal something else, and maybe something worse: a further splintering of what was hoped, at one time, to be a new start with the county after the collapse of communism. The U.S., and many in Russia and elsewhere, looked forward to an era of cooperation, scientific and educational advancement, and peace.
Those hopes are fading day by day.
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? JBernstein@liherald.com.