Russia’s recent announcement that it has decided to retire from the space station “after 2024” is deliberately vague, signaling at least a few more years of continued cooperation with the United States. It is a cooperation, however, with an increasingly unreliable partner. For NASA, this reinforces the importance of planning ahead: for continued operations of the aging space station without Russian involvement, and for investments in future space projects.
The Biden administration and the flea and science law approved by Congress officially extended NASA’s involvement in the space station until 2030. But the United States still needs other international partners to sign off on the extension, with Russia being the main wild card. Moscow did not hesitate to use the space station as leverage and war propaganda. The “after 2024” comment came from Yuri Borisov, the new head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The news was not unexpected, as Russian officials have been talking about leaving the space station since 2021. In recent months, the former head of Roscosmos said talks about Russian involvement in the space station after 2024 would only be possible only if US sanctions against the Russian space industry and other sectors were lifted.
These previous threats have mostly been bluster. Mr. Borisov’s announcement could be too, because Moscow has not officially submitted a notice of withdrawal. Russian officials later Told NASA in a private conversation that Roscosmos intends to stay with the space station until Russia gets its own operational orbital outpost, which Russia’s own estimates could take up to 2028.
Despite Russia’s comments, ISS operations are stable for now. In July, the space agencies of the two countries planned joint space missions. But Russia’s distrust means its cooperation beyond 2024 cannot be assumed. The space station is designed to make the two countries dependent on each other, and disentangling operations would be a difficult technical challenge. NASA should prioritize developing contingency plans to keep the space station operational without Russian support.
At the same time, its aging technology means the space station is approaching the end of its lifespan. If Russia wants to leave the space station to pursue its own space station, the United States must also look to the future. Late last year, NASA selected three companies to develop commercial space stations for government and private sector use. (One of them is Blue Origin, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.) For the United States to maintain an uninterrupted presence in low Earth orbit, these projects must receive the support they need. for a commercial station to wait in the wings when the space station is removed.
Launched in 1998, the space station was buoyed by the hope that despite other differences, the United States and Russia will be able to work together. As the space station nears its last decade of use, it is unfortunate that US-Russian relations have deteriorated to such an extent that that hope is in jeopardy. Amid such uncertainty, NASA should be guided by pragmatism.