MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will exit the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbital outpost, the country’s new space chief. He said Tuesday amid heightened tensions between Moscow and the West over fighting in Ukraine.
The announcement, though unexpected, calls into question the future of the 24-year-old space station, which experts say will be too difficult to operate without the Russians — perhaps a “dream” NASA and its partners had hoped would keep it operating until 2030.
“It has been decided to leave the station after 2024,” Yuri Borisov, appointed this month to lead the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. He added: “I think at that time we will start building the Russian orbital station.”
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 US and the Kremlin.
NASA officials said they had not heard directly from their Russian counterparts about the matter. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying the agency is “committed to the safe operation” of the space station through 2030 and continues to “develop future capabilities to ensure our vital presence in low-Earth orbit.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price called the announcement “an unfortunate development”, “considering the valuable professional cooperation our space agencies have enjoyed over the years.” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States is “exploring options” for dealing with Russia’s withdrawal.
Borisov’s statement reaffirmed earlier announcements by Russian space officials about Moscow’s desire to leave the space station after 2024, when 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 wear and tear on the aging International Space Station compromises safety and may make it difficult to extend its lifespan.
Cost could also be a factor: With Elon Musk’s SpaceX now flying NASA astronauts to and from the space station, the Russian space agency lost a major source of income. For years, NASA has been paying millions of dollars per seat to ride on Russian Soyuz rockets.
The Russian announcement is sure to spark speculation that it is part of a ploy by Moscow to free itself from Western sanctions. Regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, said last month that Moscow could participate in talks on extending the station’s operations only if the United States lifted sanctions against Russian space industries.
Former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in reaction to Tuesday’s announcement: “Remember Russia’s best sport is chess.”
The space station is jointly hosted by Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada. The first part was put into orbit in 1998, and the outpost continues to be inhabited. For almost 22 years. It will be used to conduct scientific research in zero gravity and test technology for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
It typically has a crew of seven who spend months at a time on the station as they orbit about 260 miles (420 kilometers) from Earth. Three Russians, three Americans and one Italian are now on board.
The more than $100 billion complex is the length of a football field and consists of two main sections, one run by Russia and the other by the US and other countries. It was not immediately clear what the Russian side of the complex would need to do to safely operate the space station once Moscow leaves.
Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 consecutive days aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016, noted that the Russian report “may still be turbulent,” leaving it vague and open-ended “after 2024.”
“I believe Russia will last as long as they can because they don’t have a human space program without the ISS,” he said. “Cooperation with the West shows some legitimacy to other non-aligned countries and their own people, which Putin needs because the war in Ukraine has damaged his credibility.”
Kelly said if the station’s design backfires on Russia, it will be difficult but not impossible for the rest of the countries to operate it.
Former NASA astronaut Terry Wirtz, who spent six months on the space station in 2014 and 2015, said the Russian evacuation was “a disaster” and would “send a significant message to the world that they are very unreliable.”
But Wirtz added that Putin “crossed a line, and we have to get away from them on the ISS.”
He said he was deeply disappointed that the three astronauts he flew in space with now supported the war in Ukraine in the Russian parliament or Duma.
Jordan Pym, a historian of science at the University of Chicago, said the Russian report “doesn’t bode well for the future of the ISS,” adding that “it creates a pool of uncertainty about maintaining the station with no easy answers.”
“What does ‘getting out’ look like?” he asked. “Will the last astronauts detach the Soyuz and return to Earth, and will the Russian-built modules be attached? Will they be deactivated before takeoff? Should NASA and its international partners negotiate for their purchase and continued use? Can these modules be maintained without Russian knowledge?”
Operating the station after the Russians bail out “could be a nightmare depending on how hard Russia wants to make it for NASA and the rest of its partners,” Pymm said.
If the station’s Russian components are separated or disabled, the most immediate problem will be how to raise the complex periodically to maintain its orbit, he said. Russian spacecraft arriving at the station with cargo and personnel help repair the station and raise its orbit.
Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said, “Really, we have to see if the Russians can launch and maintain their own independent station.”
Russia has so far made no attempt to build its own space station, and the mission now appears more daunting amid the crisis in Ukraine and Western sanctions that have limited Russia’s access to Western technology.
Even before the International Space Station, the Soviets — and later the Russians — had several of their own space stations, including Mir. America also had Skylab.
John Loxton, founder and former director of the George Washington University Institute, said that given the threats emanating from Moscow, NASA had plenty of time to get Russia back and would be derelict if it hadn’t been thinking. About this for years.
“Declaring success with a replacement station and using it as an excuse to get it out of orbit and put money into research,” he said, adding: “It’s political value has clearly diminished over time.”
AP space writer Marcia Dunn reported from Cape Canaveral, Florida. AP reporters Matthew Lee and Tracy Brown contributed from Washington.