Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. Aaron Boley holds the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy. They teach at the University of British Columbia and codirect the Outer Space Institute.
Three Russian cosmonauts arrived earlier this month on the International Space Station wearing yellow and blue flight suits. They have denied that the colours were chosen to indicate support for Ukraine, but the idea that the cosmonauts were protesting their own government’s actions resonated strongly with many – owing in part to the ISS being a powerful symbol of peace.
The ISS has been continuously inhabited for more than two decades. There are currently five Russians, four Americans and one German living and working together on board.
The most expensive structure ever built by humanity, the ISS was intended to give new purpose to Russia’s space program after the Cold War. This advanced Western interests by preventing the proliferation of expertise and technology to terrorists and rogue states.
Co-operation on the ISS also gave Western countries access to Russian expertise in long-duration space flight, as well as reliable Soyuz rockets for resupply and crew rotations. For nine years after the Space Shuttle program was shut down in 2011, Soyuz was the only way to access the ISS, including for American astronauts.
Last but not least, the ISS’s constant state of free fall makes it an invaluable laboratory for experiments, including cancer research, that cannot be conducted elsewhere.
But can this symbol of peace survive the fracture in Russian-Western relations caused by the war in Ukraine?
When U.S. President Joe Biden announced last month the first round of new sanctions against Russia, he emphasized that a ban on high-tech exports would “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
Dmitry Rogozin, the often-bombastic director-general of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, responded by pointing out that the ISS is dependent on propulsion from Russian spacecraft, with regular boosts countering the effect of gas drag – which lowers the orbit and would otherwise, over time, lead to an atmospheric re-entry.
“If you block co-operation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” Mr. Rogozin wrote on Twitter.
The threat was not entirely without substance. If Russia stopped providing regular boosts, the U.S. would have difficulty keeping the ISS in orbit. Doing so would, at minimum, require an unprecedented and delicate operation involving two different kinds of commercial spacecraft – a Cygnus capsule from Northrop Grumman and a Dragon capsule from SpaceX.
Russia has already curtailed most other space-related co-operation, including a Mars mission with the European Space Agency and commercial satellite launches for a British-Indian joint venture, OneWeb.
But Russia has invested too much money, effort and prestige into the ISS to throw this much larger project away.
If Russia detached its modules from the rest of the ISS, and tried to operate them independently, it would have to replace electrical power currently provided by U.S. This would probably require a new module – one that would take years to build and launch.
Nor is joining the Russian modules to China’s new Tiangong space station an option because of a 10-degree difference in the inclination of the orbits.
With these realities in mind, on Feb. 25 – the day after Mr. Rogozin’s threatening tweet – Russia quietly conducted a prescheduled boost to raise the orbit of the ISS, not crash it into the ocean.
The next test comes this week, with U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei due to return to Earth in a Soyuz capsule, landing in Kazakhstan.
The Russian government has already sought to introduce some uncertainty here, with a state-owned media company releasing a fictional video on March 5 showing cosmonauts saying goodbye to Mr. Vande Hei before detaching the Russian modules from the rest of the ISS and leaving him behind.
NASA refused to take the bait, releasing a statement that read: “On March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth.”
For once, Mr. Rogozin chose not to tweet. Instead, his agency released its own measured statement: “Roscosmos continues fulfilling its international obligations to ensure ISS operation.”
The invasion of Ukraine has reopened the Cold War. It is difficult to overstate the depth of the rift or the dangers associated with it.
But on the International Space Station, co-operation between Russia and Western countries will continue – because there is no other choice.
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