Russia’s ISS Withdrawal Challenging but Not Crippling, Space Policy Expert Says

Posted July 26, 2022

Russia’s announcement that it will pull out of the International Space Station after 2024 raises questions about the future of the venerable science platform. Still, there’s little reason to fear any dire short-term consequences, says Mariel Borowitz, associate professor of space policy in Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.

The decision may not even scuttle NASA’s desire to continue operating the 23-year-old station after 2024, despite Russian ownership of the ISS module and service craft that keep the station in orbit.

“I think with the notice that they have, there’s a good chance that NASA and its partners can find workarounds to continue to operate the station, even without the Russian involvement,” Borowitz said.

Tensions between the United States and its European allies and Russia have been rising recently, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. Since the start of the war, Russian officials have made comments suggesting they might choose to pull out of the station, but none so definitive as those made this week by Russian space agency chief Yuri Borisov.

NASA is counting on commercial space stations to replace the aging ISS in low-Earth orbit, none of which would include a Russian partnership. But it’s unlikely those stations will be ready by 2024, Borowitz says, hence NASA’s desire to keep the ISS in service until 2030.

“We’re still learning things on the station,” Borowitz said. “The science is important, but so is the experience of having humans live in space, fixing things that break. Those are skills we need before we return to the Moon or go to Mars, and we want to practice them close to home.”

Borowitz said that working out the legal ramifications of Russia’s exit from the station will be central to the future of the ISS. The main question will be what happens to the Russian module, which is legally under Russian jurisdiction. Those components, along with Russian service craft, provide the station’s orbital propulsion. To keep flying, U.S. and allied astronauts would have to take the Russian segment over and run its systems, but it’s unclear whether they would legally or technically be able to do so, Borowitz said. Alternatively, the U.S. and its allies would have to figure out another way to maneuver the 462-ton station to keep it clear of debris and in its proper orbit.

To Borowitz, however, the future of Russia’s crewed space program is less certain than that of the ISS. Russia has said it plans to establish its own space station and recently joined forces with China on plans to build a station on the Moon, but those outcomes are far from certain.

“The general sense is that Russia is having challenges sufficiently funding and resourcing their human space program, so a key question is whether we are seeing the decline of that program or more a reinvestment in partnerships with China,” Borowitz said. “But it’s not clear that China needs Russia as much as they once may have.”

That’s also true of the U.S., which once relied on Russian spacecraft to send crews to the ISS but increasingly relies on homegrown commercial spaceflight to support NASA’s exploration goals. The U.S. also has not included Russia in its plans to build a space station in lunar orbit or a station on the Moon.

“The U.S. has partners that are very capable in space, arguably more so than Russia,” Borowitz said. “So I think our program will continue to move forward.”

The Nunn School is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

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The International Space Station as of October 2018 (Credit: NASA)

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Michael Pearson
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts