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Russia is losing partners in space. Here's where it stands

Like on Earth, the future of space is quickly becoming a 'bipolar' frontier.

Russia is losing partners in space. Here's where it stands
An artist's depiction of Earth, and the moon, in space. aryos / iStock

For decades, everything notable in space was connected to the U.S.

But that might not be so for long. Not necessarily.

After the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, Russia and the U.S. collaborated on many missions to the International Space Station — for much of the twenty-teens. While the rise of SpaceX provided an alternative mode of transport of goods, supplies, and astronauts to space for NASA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies, Russia and the U.S. (and its allies) continued to work in meaningful collaborations.

Until this year.

Now, with immense pressure on the West to follow through on embargoes, shifting geopolitical lines on Earth are beginning to reflect policies in the final frontier.

Whether necessary or tragic, here's where Russia and its space program stand as its partnerships with the West continue to change.

Russia breaks up with NASA, the ESA, and more

Any attempt to draw geopolitical lines of change in times of radical transition is inherently tenuous, since history itself is always subject to future reinterpretation. But for most science enthusiasts, relations between NASA and Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — took a turn for the worse when Russia executed an anti-satellite missile test in November of 2021. This sent thousands of chunks of supersonic space debris into trajectories that threatened the livelihood of seven astronauts aboard the ISS, who were forced to take shelter and adjust the station's orbit.

In days and weeks following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the chief of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin appeared to threaten to disconnect the Russian thruster module from the station — removing the ISS' primary means of periodically accelerating itself to keep from re-entering the atmosphere and burning up. There were also concerns that when the last Russian cosmonauts returned, they might leave behind an American astronaut (who was slated to return with them on a Soyuz module). This would have been highly unorthodox, and left lasting impressions on the legacy of partnerships in space.

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Luckily, neither of these happened, but a souring of relations has since come to feel inevitable: Early this month, Russia announced it would suspend cooperation on the ISS. This news also came from a tweet from Roscosmos Director Rogozin, who declared that Russia would end its ties with the ISS and additional space projects until the ongoing sanctions against his country were rescinded. 

Russia's space program has eliminated its support of US military interests

Arguing that the intention of the sanctions was to "kill [the] Russian economy and plunge [its] people into despair and hunger, to get [Russia] on its knees," Rogozin declared that "the restoration of normal relations between the partners at the International Space Station and other projects is possible only with full and unconditional removal of illegal sanctions."

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This included more than just Russia's partnerships with NASA. It also applied to Roscosmos' partnerships with the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESA had already suspended its cooperation with Roscosmos in March — specifically, regarding the ExoMars rover mission. The U.K. satellite firm OneWeb subsequently pivoted to SpaceX's services after Russia refused to launch the former's orbital satellites.

To be clear — OneWeb's ride on Russia's rockets wasn't canceled merely out of principle or because of embargoes from the West. Russia demanded that OneWeb guarantee that its 36 satellites not be used for military purposes. The firm refused, which left Russia with only one choice — according to its rational self-interest. After all, the U.S. would not launch satellites that would be used against its strategic self-interest.

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Like on Earth, the future of space is bipolar, not monopolar

Most recently, the ESA declared it wouldn't join Russia during its missions to the moon — called Luna — with ongoing sanctions and an atmosphere of conflict. From every angle, it seems like Russia is cutting ties with the West when it comes to space ventures. But while this may make it look like the country is losing out, readers should take note: it still has ongoing deals with China — two countries whose relationship has never been warmer.

Last March, China and Russia announced they would build a lunar space station, after the latter declined to join NASA's Gateway program — a rival space station slated to orbit the moon after construction is complete, sometime later this decade or the early 2030s. Meanwhile, Russia and China's forthcoming International Scientific Lunar Station is slated to become "a complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in orbit of the moon," read a Roscosmos statement reported by The Verge.

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As far as we can tell, these plans are still in motion. And, with China's space program accelerating — for example with ongoing crewed missions to its Tiangong space station — the new partnership between Russia and China could serve as a viable alternative to the NASA alliance and Artemis missions. The new Sino-Russian partnership will definitely take longer than Western space programs, since the latter is moving forward on the shoulders of financial giant Elon Musk and his aerospace firm, SpaceX (among others, like Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin). But for better or worse, the future of space, just like Earth, will no longer be wholly under the jurisdiction of the United States, or unipolar — but bipolar, or centered around two edifices of power. In the coming decades, space exploration will continue to thrive not only under NASA and its public-private partnerships, but also under China and Russia, whether U.S. officials like it or not. It would be misguided to presume otherwise.

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