Dmitry Rogozin, the director-general of Russian space agency Roscosmos, announced via Twitter that Russia would suspend cooperation with NASA and other space agencies on maintaining the International Space Station (ISS).
Rogozin said that the “restoration of normal relations between partners” on the ISS would only be possible with the “complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions.”
“The U.S. continues to support international government space cooperations, especially those activities associated with operating the ISS with Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan,” the letter signed by NASA administrator Bill Nelson reads. “New and existing U.S. export control measures continue to allow cooperation between the U.S. and Russia to ensure continued safe operations of the ISS.”
Indeed, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency have similar sanctions carveouts for Russia when it comes to supplying and maintaining the ISS. Rogozin’s threats are more related to Russia’s psychological war against the West than a reaction to the sanctions.
“The position of our partners is clear: the sanctions will not be lifted,” Rogozin says. “The purpose of the sanctions is to kill the Russian economy, plunge our people into despair and hunger, and bring our country to its knees.” Rogozin adds that Roscosmos will soon determine a date on when to halt Russia’s involvement with the ISS, which will then be reported to Russian government officials.
Rogozin reacted strongly to the sanctions imposed by President Joe Biden in February, making an insinuation that the space station could come crashing down to Earth without Russia’s involvement. As my colleague Loren Grush points out, Russia’s withdrawal from the station has the potential to do real harm, as NASA relies on Russia to maintain the ISS’s position and orientation in space.
It’s a real problem for NASA if Rogozin follows through with his threat.
Without Russia, NASA would have to engineer a new solution to help keep the station on the right path in space, so that the vehicle does not slowly fall out of orbit and enter Earth’s atmosphere. “If the Russians walk away, then you’ve got this massive object that’s going to come back in randomly somewhere over the Earth,” Wayne Hale, former program manager of NASA’s Space Shuttle and a member of NASA’s Advisory Council, tells The Verge. However such a scenario would take quite a while to manifest, possibly giving NASA some time to devise an alternate solution. “It’s not like a week, it’ll probably be several years,” says Hale.
There are currently seven astronauts onboard the ISS — three Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, and one German-born ESA astronaut. The U.S. is dependent on Russia to ferry our astronauts to and from the ISS since we don’t have our own government-run manned space program.
We do have a private manned space program. SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, has accomplished several successful launches of its Dragon capsule and ferried cargo and humans to the ISS. In an emergency, it could always be pressed into service.
But Rogozin may just be being his bombastic self. The Russian director’s persona stresses the dramatic. Last month before Russia’s Ukraine invasion, he threatened to bring down the space station over a populated area. This was beyond Russia’s power but was cheered on by the Russian population.
If Russia abandons the ISS, they are not likely to be asked back. Given the hard currency that Russia is paid for their services to the ISS, they can ill afford to be left out in the cold.