Baltimore Sun

Russia poised to abandon role in Internatio­nal Space Station

- By Vladimir Isachenkov and Marcia Dunn

MOSCOW — Russia will pull out of the Internatio­nal Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbiting outpost, the country’s new space chief said Tuesday amid high tensions between Moscow and the West over the fighting in Ukraine.

The announceme­nt, while not unexpected, throws into question the future of the 24-year-old space station, with experts saying it would be extremely difficult — perhaps a “nightmare,” by one reckoning — to keep it running without the Russians. NASA and its partners had hoped to continue operating it until 2030.

“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, appointed this month to lead the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said during a meeting with 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,” Borisov added.

Putin’s response: “Good.” The space station has long

been a symbol of post-Cold War internatio­nal teamwork in the name of science but is now one of the last areas of cooperatio­n between the U.S. and the Kremlin.

NASA had no immediate comment.

State Department spokesman Ned Price called the announceme­nt “an unfortunat­e developmen­t” given the “valuable profession­al collaborat­ion our space agencies have had over the years.”

National Security Council spokespers­on John Kirby said the U.S. is “exploring options” for dealing with a Russian withdrawal.

Borisov’s statement reaffirmed previous declaratio­ns by Russian space officials about Moscow’s intention to leave the space station after 2024 when the current internatio­nal arrangemen­ts for its operation end.

Russian officials have long talked about their desire to launch their own space station and have complained that the wear and tear on the aging Internatio­nal Space Station is compromisi­ng safety and could make it difficult to extend its lifespan.

Cost may also be a factor: With Elon Musk’s SpaceX company now flying NASA astronauts to and from the space station, the Russian Space Agency lost a major source of income.

For years, NASA had been paying tens of millions of dollars per seat for rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.

The Russian announceme­nt is certain to stir speculatio­n that it is part of Moscow’s maneuverin­g to win relief from Western sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. Borisov’s predecesso­r, Dmitry Rogozin, said last month that Moscow could take part in negotiatio­ns about a possible extension of the station’s operations only if the U.S. lifts its sanctions against Russian space industries.

Former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in reaction to Tuesday’s announceme­nt: “Remember that Russia’s best game is chess.”

The space station is jointly run by Russia, the U.S.,

Europe, Japan and Canada. The first piece was put into orbit in 1998, and the outpost has been continuous­ly inhabited for nearly 22 years. It is used to conduct scientific research in zero gravity and test out technology for future journeys to the moon and Mars.

It typically has a crew of seven, who spend months at a time aboard the station as it orbits about 260 miles above Earth. Three Russians, three Americans and one Italian are now on board.

The $100 billion-plus complex is about as long as a football field and consists of two main sections, one run by Russia, the other by the U.S. and the other countries. It was not immediatel­y clear what will have to be done to the Russian side of the complex to safely operate the space station once Moscow pulls out.

Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 continuous days aboard the Internatio­nal Space Station in 2015 and 2016, said that the Russian statement “could be just more bluster,” noting that “after 2024” is vague and open-ended.

“I believe Russia will stay as long as they can afford to, as without ISS they have no human spacefligh­t program,” he said. “Cooperatio­n with the West also shows some amount of legitimacy to other, nonaligned nations and to their own people, which Putin needs, as the war in Ukraine has damaged his credibilit­y.”

Kelly said the design of the station would make it difficult but not impossible for the remaining nations to operate it if Russia were to withdraw.

Jordan Bimm, a historian of science at the University of Chicago, said the Russian statement “does not bode well for the future of the ISS,” adding that “it creates a constellat­ion of uncertaint­ies about maintainin­g the station which don’t have easy answers.”

Bimm said that running the station after the Russians bail out “could be a nightmare depending on how hard Russia wanted to make it for NASA and its remaining partners.”

If the Russian components of the station were detached or inoperable, the most immediate problem would be how to boost the complex periodical­ly to maintain its orbit, he said. Russian spacecraft that arrive at the station with cargo and crew members are used to help align the station and raise its orbit.

 ?? NASA 2021 ?? The Internatio­nal Space Station orbits about 260 miles above Earth and has been inhabited for nearly 22 years.
NASA 2021 The Internatio­nal Space Station orbits about 260 miles above Earth and has been inhabited for nearly 22 years.

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