Russia Threatens to Leave the International Space Station

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Recent statements made by Russian officials are provoking a precarious future for the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, May 13, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin held a news conference at which he threatened to pull Russia out of the International Space Station by 2020, which could potentially leave the U.S. in a difficult situation. The U.S. plans to use the ISS at least until 2024. But a Russian pull-out could potentially cripple the station. Rogozin stated (rough translation):

“The Russian segment [of the ISS] . . . can exist independently from the U.S., the American segment of Russia cannot exist independently. It’s the specifications of the station.”

Slate’s Phil Plait explains:

In other words, they don’t need us, but we need them. This is more-or-less true; Zvezda (the Russian module that is the center of their operations on ISS) has the propulsion module, for example, and other critical components needed to keep the station’s life support running. However, this may not be a complete trump card; when Zvezda was being built, the U.S. built a backup Interim Control Module in case something went wrong (Russia was having big financial woes at the time Zvezda was under construction).

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Artist’s rendering of the ISS. (Credit: NASA)

Rogozin’s statements come at a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. and Russia resulting from U.S. sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis. Fortunately for the U.S., space industry dependence on Russia is gradually decreasing thanks to private space companies.

An inflatable space module from Las Vegas based Bigelow Aerospace is already scheduled to be tested on the ISS. NASA officials confirmed on Friday, January 11, 2013 that a $17.8 million deal has been signed with Bigelow Aerospace in which the private space company will deliver one of its Bigelow Expandable Activity Modules (BEAM) to the ISS, where it will attach to the station for testing. BEAM will be the company’s third orbital prototype, but it will be the first to be tested as part of a crewed spacecraft. NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a statement,

“This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation.”

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Bigelow Aerospace’s BA 300 module. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

According to the company’s January 16, 2013 press release, “The BEAM will be launched to the ISS on a Falcon 9 rocket as part of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services Mission 8.” And that launch is expected to take place in the late summer or early fall of 2015. Bigelow’s first two prototypes, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, are already orbiting Earth. These prototypes were launched into orbit in 2006 and 2007, respectively. And Bigelow Aerospace has plans for its own space stations, which will initially be comprised of two of the company’s BA 330 modules.

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Bigelow’s Alpha Station. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

CNN reports that a statement released by NASA says that the U.S. space agency “has not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.” So, although the threat of pulling out from the ISS has been made, nothing is official . . . yet.

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