In response to these sanctions, the head of Roscosmos on the same day posted a tweet sayingamong other things, “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and fall to the United States or Europe?”
The International Space Station has often remained above the geopolitical fray. This position is under threat.
Built and operated by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, the ISS has shown how countries can cooperate on major space projects. The station has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years and has welcomed more than 250 people from 19 countries.
As an expert in space policy, the ISS represents for me a high place of cooperation in space exploration. But for the current crew of two Russians, four Americans and a German, things can get worrying as tensions rise between the United States and Russia.
Several agreements and systems are in place to ensure the space station runs smoothly while being managed by five different space agencies.
As of February 24, there were no reports of unusual actions aboard the station despite the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the Russian government has already introduced the ISS into geopolitics and is still doing so.
What became known as the International Space Station was first designed on NASA drawing boards in the early 1980s. As costs exceeded initial estimates, NASA officials invited international partners from the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan to join the project.
When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Russian space program found himself in a hopeless situationsuffering from a lack of funding and an exodus of engineers and program managers.
take advantage of Russian expertise in space stations and fostering post-Cold War cooperation, then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin convinced the Clinton administration to bring Russia into the renamed International Space Station program.
In 1998, just before the launch of the first modules, Russia, the United States and the other international partners of the ISS concluded memorandums of understanding which explained how important decisions would be made and what kind of control each nation would have over different parts of the station.
The body which governs the operation of the space station is the Multilateral Coordinating Council. This council includes representatives from each of the space agencies involved in the ISS and is chaired by the United States. The board works by consensus to make decisions on things like a code of conduct for ISS crews.
Even between international partners who want to work together, consensus is not always possible. If this happens, either the Chairman of the Board can make decisions on how to move forward, or the matter can be brought to the attention of the NASA Administrator and Chief of Staff. Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Territories in space
While the station’s overall operations are handled by the Multilateral Coordination Council, things are more complicated when it comes to the modules themselves.
The International Space Station is made up of 16 different slices built by different countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, Italy and the European Space Agency. Within the framework of the ISS agreements, each country retains control over the use of its modules.
The result is that ISS modules are treated legally as if they were territorial extensions from their countries of origin. Although all crew on board could theoretically be in and use any of the modules, how they are used must be approved by each country.
Although the ISS has performed remarkably well under this structure since its launch more than 20 years ago, there have been some disputes.
When Russian forces annexed in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. As a result, Russian officials announced that they would no longer launch American astronauts to and from the space station from 2020.
Since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, the United States. depended entirely on Russian rockets to get astronauts to and from the ISS, and that threat could have spelled the end of America’s presence aboard the space station.
Although Russia did not follow through on its threat and continued to transport American astronauts, the threat had to be taken seriously. The situation today is quite different. The United States relies on private SpaceX rockets to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. This makes potential Russian access launch threats less significant.
But the invasion of Ukraine seems to have heightened the intensity of geopolitical maneuvering involving the ISS.
The new US sanctions are designed to “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” the tweet in response from Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, “explained” that the Russian modules are essential to move the station when it has to dodge space debris or adjust its orbit.
He added that Russia could either refuse to move the station when needed or even crash it in the US, Europe, India or China.
Although dramatic, this is likely an unnecessary threat due to both the political consequences and the practical difficulty of getting Russian cosmonauts safely out of the ISS. But I’m concerned about how the invasion will affect the remaining years of the space station.
In December 2021, the The United States has announced its intention to extend ISS operations from its planned end date of 2024 to 2030. Most ISS partners have expressed support for the plan, but Russia will also have to agree to keep the ISS operational beyond 2024. Without Russian support, the station – and all of its scientific and cooperative achievements – may face an untimely end.
The ISS served as a perfect example of how nations can cooperate with each other in an endeavor that has been relatively free of politics. Rising tensions, threats and more aggressive Russian actions – including its recent test of anti-satellite weapons – strain the realities of international cooperation in space in the future.