The ISS as We Know It May Be Coming to an End

Russia recently threatened to leave the ISS and this could have a grand impact on the future of ISS.
Jenn Halweil

The future of the International Space Station as we know it may be in jeopardy. 

On June 7, in a Russian Parliament hearing, Dmitry Rogozin, the Director General of Roscosmos, threatened to withdraw from the ISS, presumably before the planned date of 2025, should American sanctions against Russia remain in place. 

“If the sanctions against Progress and TsNIIMash remain and are not lifted in the near future, the issue of Russia's withdrawal from the ISS will be the responsibility of the American partners,” said Rogozin in an NBC translation of the hearing. “Either we work together, in which case the sanctions are lifted immediately, or we will not work together and we will deploy our own station,”

When and why were these sanctions imposed?

Current sanctions on TsNIIMash, the JSC (joint stock company) Rocket and Space Center Progress and the JSC Central Research Institute of Machine Building, were imposed after the Trump administration claimed they had ties to Russian military programs. As a result, any American companies selling to TsNIIMash must obtain a license to do so. This sanction has greatly harmed microchip importation to Roscosmos, which has, in turn, caused problems for maintaining timely launches.

Additional sanctions were placed on the nation following Russian military intervention in, and annexation of, Crimea. 

The space relationship between the United States and Russia has a long history of both fight and flight, as well as competition and collaboration. With the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite in 1957, the United States and Russia began their mad dash to "win the space race.” For the next twenty years, both countries launched satellites, animals, and humans into low-earth orbit, and eventually to the moon. 

July, 1975, marked the first Apollo-Soyuz mission, a joint venture in which a U.S. Apollo module docked with a Soviet Union Soyuz capsule. The mission effectively ended the space race, and softened tensions between the nations with a handshake between astronaut Tom Stafford and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

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In 1998, Russia launched Zarya, the first module of the International Space Station, with the help of the United States. Since then, the station has been ever-growing, thanks to its modular design. Today, the ISS is equipped with an acre of solar panels, a gym, six sleeping quarters, and the cupola, with its famously-photogenic, blue marble earthrise view. 

With Russia potentially exiting the ISS early, the ISS has to adapt. In 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end, meaning that the United States was dependent on Russia to transport astronauts, supplies, and tech to the ISS on Soyuz rockets. With crumbling relations from sanctions, the US will have to turn to other countries to get to the ISS, and has already turned to private companies.

Enter private companies

SpaceX has been delivering cargo to and from the ISS since 2012. In May of 2020, SpaceX completed their first human transport launch of the Crew Dragon rocket, making SpaceX the first private rocket to carry humans into orbit, under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This launch brought four astronauts, two of whom were NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station. This April, SpaceX had another successful human transport launch, which brought passengers to the ISS. It remains unclear if the US will entirely abandon Russian space support for commercial rocketry. 

But Russia’s withdrawal may speed up the commercialization of the ISS itself—yes, the ISS may become a privatized entity. Should Russia leave the ISS, commercial space ventures will need to fill in that country’s space (pun intended) to maintain the station. In 2019, NASA opened the ISS to commercial research and private astronauts, to foster the new “space economy”. Prior to this announcement, more than 50 companies already worked on research with the ISS through the ISS U.S. National Laboratory.

Companies like Virgin Galactic have also received FAA approval to fly passengers to suborbital space, allowing them to reinvest the profits from space tourism towards further commercial space travel. However, the updated directive would allow for companies to directly complete research on the station, instead of solely through the National Laboratory. Already, plans are in place to dock the first-ever commercial module onto the ISS. Axiom Space, who secured a deal with NASA to transport private citizens to the ISS, could be launching their module in 2024, amid plans for it to facilitate the influx of people that will soon be inhabiting the station. 

A whole new privately-owned space station in the works?

Axiom’s orbital segment is unique in that, when the International Space Station eventually deorbits, the pod will break off to form its own new space station, completely owned by Axiom, rather than by a nation or coalition of nations. The new station’s production is planned to have four stages of growth, the first being the actual pod breaking off from the ISS, known as Axiom Hub One. Then, an additional pod will be connected to Hub One to expand both research space and crew quarters. In the third phase, they will add the Axiom Lab, which will act as a research and manufacturing facility in space. In the final stage, the station will power the station using solar panels in the Power Tower.

Russia was originally seeking to follow a similar path to establish their own space station. The Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex, or OPSEK, would be built around the Russian Orbital Segment of the International Space Station. However, Roscosmos later abandoned these plans due to the condition of their ISS modules and the technological challenges that came with it. 

Russia’s departure from the ISS could even result in the station disbanding altogether. While this is an unlikely scenario, the International Space Station is rapidly aging. It originally had a lifespan of just 15 years, but continued repairs and orbital boosts have kept it running since 1998, and could continue well into the 2020s. The international partner governments involved with creating the ISS have agreed to let it run until December of 2024, although it has been cleared to operate until the end of 2028. With just a few years left of its currently planned lifetime, losing a nation that is essential to its functions and operations could be devastating for the aging station. 

There is still hope for Russia and the International Space Station. In an introductory phone call between the new NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Rogozin, Nelson said he was, “committed to continuing that very effective ISS partnership." A NASA statement later remarked that the call was a productive addition to ensuring that NASA and Roscosmos remain in good standings. Nelson and Rogozin will further continue talks through June, with both attending the virtual Global Space Exploration Conference this month. 

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