For nearly a quarter century, the International Space Station has circled the globe un-buffeted by political winds down on Earth. But the orbiting facility has never had to weather a schism as bad as the one that now divides Russia from the rest of the station’s partners, including the United States, Canada, Japan and the 22 member countries of the European Space Agency.
When the invasion of Ukraine began, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, blasted Western sanctions in a series of tweets and warned that the U.S. was inviting an uncontrolled de-orbit of the 500-tonne International Space Station (ISS) on India or China, among other countries it passes over. Last week, he posted a video of partner countries’ national flags being removed from a Russian rocket and, on Tuesday, he sparred with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, adding “the death of the #ISS will be on your conscience.”
The war of words has raised question about whether the invasion of Ukraine could force adjustments in the station’s operations or even hasten its decommissioning if it ceases to be a symbol of post-Cold War amity. Russia is already looking to China as a preferred partner for its future space endeavours.
In the short term, current events are unlikely to affect the day-to-day running of the station, space policy experts say.
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Echoing that assessment, Andrea Matte, a spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency, told The Globe and Mail that, “Operations on the International Space Station continue as usual. As always, the priority for all partners is to ensure the safety of the station and crew.”
Ms. Matte added that the agency has no staff in Russia at present and that there are no plans for Canadian astronauts to train there this year.
Of the seven crew members who currently occupy the station, two are Russian, four are from the U.S. and one is from Germany. But while they represent different nationalities, the crew shares an operational culture that prioritizes working together in space regardless of what is happening on the ground.
“Space operations is a team sport. On board, crew members are focused on performing our assigned tasks correctly and we rely on each other to accomplish ambitious mission objectives that have been assigned to us preflight,” said Robert Thirsk, a former Canadian astronaut who journeyed to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule in 2009.
Dr. Thirsk said he supports sanctions against Russia but hopes they will not expand to include the station. A first indication of any disruption could come later this month, when three more Russian cosmonauts are scheduled to arrive at the station, followed by the return of U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei with his two Russian crewmates via Soyuz capsule.
A more direct threat to the program could arise if Russia no longer chooses to boost the altitude of the space station – a task that is currently accomplished with the help of its Progress supply vehicles that dock to the station. Russia is only committed to membership in the space station until 2024 and an earlier exit cannot be ruled out if relations with the West deteriorate further. Meanwhile, the U.S. has said it plans to extend the station’s operations to the end of the decade.
“The biggest question, in my opinion, is how to maintain ISS propulsion through 2030. This will depend on how and when the Russians leave,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
One possible answer may be a U.S. Cygnus cargo capsule, built by aerospace company Orbital Sciences, that was put in at the station last month and was already scheduled to test a newly developed capability to boost the orbiting facility this spring. Space entrepreneur Elon Musk has also indicated an interest in his company, Space X, fulfilling the role.
A more complicated question is what would be the fate of the Russian parts of the station if Russia is no longer a partner.
John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute, said that the multiple parts that make up what is called the Russian Orbital Segment only connect to the rest of the station at one point, making detachment possible, though not necessarily practical. However, he added, as long as the station can be boosted without Russia’s help, it could continue with a detached or closed-off Russian section.
This would likely accelerate Russia’s move to align with China as a space partner. The two countries have already announced plans to collaborate on a lunar research station. Dr. Logsdon added that China would be the dominant partner in any joint venture because it has rapidly developed its space program while Russia’s has languished.
David Kendall, a fellow at the Vancouver-based Outer Space Institute and former director-general of space science and technology at the Canadian Space Agency, said that a more far-reaching effect of the Ukrainian invasion on the space sector is that it is likely to further reduce Russia’s interest in multilateral bodies such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
“They are working on a number of issues, especially dealing with the security of space, which are very important,” Dr. Kendall said. “I really fear for the future of those discussions.”
The invasion poses a more immediate challenge for Maritime Launch Services, a Nova Scotia-based company that aims to launch satellites from Canada’s Atlantic coast. The company is working with Ukrainian suppliers for its Cyclone-4M launch vehicle.
In a statement, Stephen Matier, CEO of Maritime Launch, said the company “condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is deeply concerned for the safety of our friends and colleagues … and for all people of Ukraine.”
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