As the race for the moon ebbed, American and Soviet cosmonauts met and shook hands in space for the first time in 1975. The United States and Russia continued to work together in outer space, looking beyond hostilities on Earth, culminating in the 1990s with the two nations jointly undertaking Building and operating a laboratory in space.
The future of this cooperation became uncertain Tuesday, as the new head of the Russian Space Agency announced that Russia will leave the International Space Station after its current commitment expires at the end of 2024.
“The decision was made to leave the station after 2024,” he said. Yuri Borisov, who was appointed this month To run Roscosmos, a state-controlled company responsible for the country’s space program.
Mr. Putin replied: “Good.”
As tensions rose between Washington and Moscow after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian space officials, including Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, issued statements in recent months that Russia was planning to leave. But they all left ambiguity as to when this would happen or whether a final decision had been made.
If Russia follows through, it could hasten the end of a project that NASA has spent about $100 billion in over the past quarter century, leading to debate over what to do next. The space station, a partnership with Russia that also includes Canada, Europe and Japan, is central to studying the effects of weightlessness and radiation on human health — research that remains incomplete but is needed before astronauts embark on longer trips to Mars. It has also been turned into a test ground for the commercial use of space, including Visits by wealthy citizens and manufacture of high purity optical fibers.
A White House official said the United States has not received any official notification from Russia that it will pull out of the space station, although officials have been briefed on public comments.
“We are exploring options to mitigate any potential impacts on the International Space Station after 2024 if Russia does indeed withdraw,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
“It is my understanding that we were surprised by the public statement that was made,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said during Tuesday’s briefing, adding that Russia’s announcement was an “unfortunate development.”
“NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement Tuesday. “Beyond” in “post-2024,” in the words of Mr. Borisov, provides plenty of room for maneuver for Russia to expand its involvement beyond its current commitment.
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“This might be a rant from the Russians,” said Phil Larson, the White House space adviser during the Obama administration. “It can be reconsidered, or it can come to fruition.”
But experts say the announcement casts a shadow over whether the station will continue to operate until the end of the decade.
“The withdrawal will take some time,” said Pavel Luzhin, a Russian military and aerospace analyst. “Most likely, we need to interpret this as Russia’s refusal to extend the operation of the plant until 2030.”
Speaking from orbit to a conference on space station research, Kjell Lindgren, one of the NASA astronauts on the International Space Station, said nothing has changed there, so far.
He said, “This is very recent news, and so we have not heard anything official. Of course, you know, we have been trained to do a mission here, and this mission requires the entire crew.”
For nearly half a century, beginning with American and Soviet astronauts meeting in orbit in 1975 during the Apollo Soyuz mission, cooperation in space has been seen as a way to build positive relations between the two countries, even as diplomatic tensions persist. . Decades of space cooperation have withstood many ups and downs in US-Russia relations.
From 1995 to 1998, NASA space shuttles docked at the Russian Mir space station, and American cosmonauts lived in Mir.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton reformulated efforts to build Freedom, a space station that President Ronald Reagan had proposed a decade earlier, as the International Space Station, with Russia added as one of the main participants.
was the decision A symbol of post-Cold War cooperation Between the two global space powers, which competed to launch rockets and astronauts into orbit during tense phases of global competition, and later became involved in the lunar race that led to the Apollo landings in the 1960s and 1970s. But U.S. policymakers in the 1990s also made cold calculations that building the space station would provide work for Russian missile engineers who might have sold their considerable expertise to countries seeking to build missiles, such as North Korea.
The first terminal module was launched in 1998, and Astronauts have lived there since 2000. Russian and American crewmates traveled together in Soyuz capsules and space shuttles on trips to orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and Kennedy Space Center. They shared meals and holidays, collaborated in the repair and maintenance of the station and discussed policies that disturb their nations on the surface.
NASA officials, who want to extend space station operations through 2030, have expressed confidence that Russia will survive, despite recent shifts in the broader political relationship.
However, Russia was heavily criticized by NASA this month after the Russian space agency Roscosmos distributed images of Three Russian cosmonauts on the space station holding the flag Flags of Russian-backed separatists In two provinces of Ukraine.
It is uncertain how long the station can operate without Russian interference. The outpost in orbit consists of two divisions, one led by NASA and the other led by Russia. The two are interrelated. Much of the power on the Russian side comes from NASA’s solar panels, while the Russians provide the impetus to periodically raise the orbit.
It is conceivable that Russia might be willing to sell half of its station to NASA or a private company. NASA is also studying whether a US spacecraft can take over Some tasks of raising the orbit of the space station. But due to the location of NASA’s docking ports, American vehicles will be less suitable for adjusting the orientation of the space station.
Russia has plans for its own space station, but Roscosmos has been short of money to do so for years. After the US space shuttles retired in 2011, NASA was forced to purchase seats on Soyuz rockets, providing a steady stream of money for the Russians. That revenue dried up after SpaceX began providing transportation for NASA astronauts two years ago. Russia lost Additional sources of income As a result of economic sanctions that prevented European companies and other countries from launching satellites on their missiles.
“Without cooperation with the West, the Russian space program is impossible in all its parts, including the military one,” said Dr. Luzin.
Russia is also looking to increase cooperation with China’s space programme, which launched a Sunday lab unit to be added to its space station, Tiangong. But Tiangong It is not in orbit accessible to Russian launchers, and many discussions between the two countries have focused on Cooperation in the exploration of the moon.
“The prospects for cooperation with China are an illusion,” said Dr. Luzin. The Chinese viewed Russia as a potential partner until 2012 and have since held back. Today, Russia cannot offer anything to China in terms of space. ”
Not so long ago, it was the United States that wanted to end the International Space Station after 2024.
In 2018, the Trump administration proposed Ending federal funding for the space stationHoping to transport its astronauts to commercial stations. That initiative fizzled out a year later, when NASA turned its attention to accelerating plans to return astronauts to the Moon.
NASA is still trying Start a market for future commercial space stations. In December, it awarded contracts totaling $415.6 million to three companies — Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; Nanoracks of Houston; and Northrop Grumman of Dallas, Virginia – to develop their designs.
But Paul Martin, Inspector General for NASA, to caution That even if the ISS continues until 2030, commercial follow-ups may not be ready in time, and there may be a gap as NASA does not have an orbiting laboratory to conduct research, especially with regard to the long-term health effects of zero gravity and radiation on astronauts .
If Russia’s decision leads to abandoning the International Space Station, China may have the only space station in orbit. China has offered to transport astronauts from other countries to Tiangong. Astronauts from the European Space Agency I have already trained with Chinese astronauts. In general, NASA is prohibited from working directly with China.
The new disruption could also highlight another unresolved problem: how to safely dispose of something the size of a football field and weighing nearly a million pounds. In a report released in January, NASA has discussed a plan to propel the station into the atmosphere so that anything that has escaped re-entry will splash into the Pacific Ocean. Logistics details are yet to be worked out.
Peter Baker And the Michael Crowley Contributed to reporting from Washington.
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