Adam Minter

The US and Russia Still Need to Get Along in Space

The first batch of US sanctions targeting Russia last week included several designed to hamstring the country's space program. The move did not please Dmitry Rogozin, director of the Russian space program.

For three decades, the US and Russia have collaborated on the International Space Station, or ISS, a 462-ton behemoth orbiting 250 miles above the Earth. In a string of tweets (translated by Rob Mitchell for Ars Technica), Rogozin suggested that the collaboration could soon come to a fiery end:

If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an unguided de-orbit to impact on the territory of the US or Europe? There's also the chance of impact of the 500-ton construction in India or China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?

It's an intimidating suggestion, but not a serious one. Over the last decade, the ISS has been buffeted by political crises and worsening tensions between the US and Russia. Yet in each case, practical and political considerations have kept the collaboration in orbit. The invasion of Ukraine is far more serious than these previous conflicts, but despite the bluster, the ISS will remain among the resilient components of the deteriorating US-Russian relationship.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the development of Space Station Freedom, a massive orbital outpost. Over the next decade, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its contractors spent billions failing to develop it. In 1993, after narrowly avoiding cancellation in Congress, the station project was transformed into a collaboration between five space agencies representing 15 countries.

Russia's space program was the most important partner. It had extensive experience building and operating space stations, and was already working on a successor to its in-orbit Mir station. Both the Russians and their Western partners viewed the ISS as an excellent symbol of post-Cold War collaboration.

Under the terms of the collaboration, the station is split between a Russian-operated segment, and a US-operated segment shared with the other partners. The two sides are heavily integrated and dependent upon each other. Most notably, the US provides electricity to the entire complex via huge (recently updated) solar arrays, while Russia provides the rockets that steer, re-orient (in order to avoid space junk, for example), or simply maintain the station in its 250-mile-high orbit.

That's the capability to which Dimitry Rogozin was referring when he tweeted threats to crash the space station into populated areas. In January, NASA released a report on the future of the ISS. As soon as 2026, it determined, those same Russian rockets could be asked to begin the process of gently de-orbiting the space station so that it safely crashes into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, probably in 2031. Rogozin, in his pique, seemed to suggest that Russia could disrupt those plans in the most catastrophic way possible.

But as a practical matter, it's highly unlikely that Russia would ever follow through with that course of action. The reasons are several, starting with the simple fact that the International Space Station is the highest-profile civilian space initiative still operated by the Russia's once-proud space program. In recent years, Russia has threatened to leave the ISS collaboration and form its own space station. But prospects for that seem slim.

Over the next three years, Russia's total space budget will be cut by an average of 16% annually, and in 2022 it will be roughly $2.9 billion. By contrast, the annual US contribution to operating the ISS is around $4 billion. For now, at least, this allows Russia to maintain its storied space presence on the cheap.

It's not just Russia that needs the space station, either. For the US, the ISS is now entering its most productive decade after years of underuse. Losing that science would affect other US human exploration programs, such as longer-term plans for the moon and Mars.

Just as important, the US is scrambling to develop and deploy private space stations to replace the ISS at the end of the decade. If the current collaboration were, for some reason, to stop functioning, China's Tiangong space station would become humanity's only orbital outpost. American policy makers are keen to avoid such an outcome.

To do so, they'll need to ensure that Earth-bound arguments don't make their way into orbit. Over the last decade, the US and Russia managed do just that, keeping the ISS running through tensions surrounding the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and even accusations of onboard sabotage. Indeed, hours after Rogozin's Twitter outburst, NASA issued a statement noting that the sanctions make room for continued US-Russian civil space collaboration. On Monday, a NASA spokesperson pointedly noted that the American and Russian space agencies are still talking, working and training together on the ISS.

But both countries are preparing for a future without the other. The US is investigating new ways to de-orbit the ISS; Russia is beginning to collaborate with China. In a few years, this last vestige of post-Cold War diplomacy will be obsolete relic of a more optimistic time.