Yuri Borisov, the new head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, expanded on comments he made last week by pointing to the country’s intention to disassociate itself from the International Space Station (ISS) “after 2024.”
It appears that part of this message may have been lost in translation. In an interview with state-run Russian news channel Rossiya 24, Borisov explained: “We have announced that we intend to do this not in 2024, but after 2024. In Russian, these are two big differences.
Interview (will open in a new tab) posted on the Roscosmos website in Russian; The quotations printed here in English have been translated using Google Translate. In the interview, Borisov outlined the main strategy that Roscosmos is using regarding its plans to withdraw the ISS and clarified the agency’s intention to act in accordance with international agreements. “The procedure for the withdrawal of the Russian side from the international ISS project is clearly regulated,” Borisov explained.
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“We must warn colleagues a year in advance that we will do this under such and such circumstances. We didn’t warn [NASA] more about this; That is unnecessary. We just said that after 2024 we will start the exit process,” Borisov said in an interview. He added that exit “could take up to two years.”
Borisov’s comments are not overwhelming; Russian space officials reportedly told their NASA counterparts last week that Roscosmos wants to remain in partnership with the ISS for some more time – ideally until Russia launches its own space station in 2028 or about that.
“About two years ago, we began to seriously think about the continuation [crewed] program and development of the domestic orbital station,” Borisov said. He cited “authoritative opinion from many experts” predicting an increased likelihood of cascading failures in ISS systems after 2024 – substantiating his “2024” remarks earlier in the week.
“The time that our astronauts, including American astronauts, spend searching for possible malfunctions and fixing them begins to exceed all reasonable limits. This is done through scientific research,” Borisov said.
In fact, NASA is also thinking about its plans for low Earth orbit access after the ISS is decommissioned. For example, the US Space Agency has provided funding to several companies to develop commercial space stations to take over from the ISS. While the orbiting lab is only officially approved to operate until 2024, NASA wants to keep it operational until 2030. However, Borisov sees a point of diminishing returns before this later date.
The head of Roscosmos said that since many of the US modules on the ISS are newer than the bulk of the Russian module, the Russian modules did not have much useful scientific input left.
“The lion’s share of the plans for this orbital inclination (51.6 degrees), in particular the experiments on the ISS, have been completed,” he said. “From a scientific point of view, we do not see any additional dividends by stretching this process until 2030. And the funds that will be spent on the maintenance of the Russian part and our participation are huge.”
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A premature Russian withdrawal could ruin NASA’s hopes of continuing missions to the ISS for the rest of the decade. NASA recently tested the ability of the private US cargo ship Cygnus to perform altitude correction for a space station that requires periodic boosts to maintain its orbit. To date, the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft are responsible for adjusting the ISS orbit.
A 2022 report by a team of NASA and Roscosmos engineers outlined a plan for controlled deorbiting of the ISS using three Russian Progress cargo vehicles, but it’s not clear if the increase in altitude from Cygnus could lead to similar capabilities. Borisov told Rossiya 24: “In the opinion of our Western colleagues and our specialists, most likely, without Russian participation, this will not be possible.”
Fortunately, cooperation may be a priority for the new head of the Russian space agency — at least compared to his predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, who became known for his harsh and hostile statements, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The ISS project enriched world science in the field of knowledge about the Universe and the Earth, gave all participants in this process new knowledge and to some extent united us. I believe that both today and in the future, such projects should be out of politics,” Borisov said. “I am very sorry that sometimes in this difficult time, our joint projects in space, which are of interest to all mankind, begin to acquire political overtones. It is not right”.
Moreover, Borisov seemed to admit that Roskosmos is lagging behind the space agencies of some other countries. “If we compare today the state of the space constellations of the main players in this market – Americans, Europeans and Chinese – then they have long overtaken us in this regard.”
Borisov added that Roskosmos “owes” the Russian economy and announced its intention to radically rebuild “the main processes of the technological cycle, such as development, production [and] tests” at the Russian Space Agency.
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