Russia’s post-ISS plans a mystery at best

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This article appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine. 

With the end of the International Space Station program looming just over the horizon, the national space agencies that back the project are scrambling to make plans for what comes next. Nowhere is this discussion more fraught than in Russia, where the issue of post-ISS efforts are wrapped up in questions about Russia’s entire future in space.

Beset by ruthless budget crunches, poor relations with its current Western partners, and technical limitations, Russia appears set to go its separate way in human spaceflight following the conclusion of the ISS program. The only real question at this point, at least based on public statements of policy and intent, is when that will happen. Currently, the best guess is 2024.

Igor Komarov, the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, has not done much to clarify this publicly. And he has contradicted himself several times in recent months. In March, Komarov said Russia would separate its ISS modules in 2024 to form the basis of a new Russian national space station. But speaking in April at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, he said Russia is open to staying until 2028.

At the Le Bourget airshow in France in June, Komarov attempted to outline in broad strokes the future of his nation’s struggling manned space program and appeared to again contradict himself. Although he didn’t provide a timeline, Komarov said that China had made an offer for Russia to join its upcoming space station project.

“For now, there are agreements and plans for the future, but nothing concrete,” Komarov was quoted by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency as saying.”

Russia's venerable Soyuz capsule, along with China's nearly identical Shenzhou capsule, are currently the world's only in-service spacecraft for carrying astronauts into orbit and back. Credit: Roscosmos via Flickr
Russia’s venerable Soyuz capsule, along with China’s nearly identical Shenzhou capsule, are currently the world’s only in-service spacecraft for carrying astronauts into orbit and back. Credit: Roscosmos

Will they stay or will they go?

Taken at face value, the Russians seem to be signalling a possible end to large-scale space cooperation with the West, and a tack to cooperation with China. And Russia’s space industry seems to agree with this. In recent weeks, Russian media have reported on several contractor proposals for a new Russian station or a joint project with the Chinese.

The question seems to be not whether Russia will separate its modules, but when. Operation of the Russian segment of ISS is already locked in until at least 2024 under the government’s current 10-year space funding program, which concludes in 2025. In this way, continued operation beyond 2024 is likely a financial question, though there are political elements.

For the past three years, Russia has maintained its next goal in space exploration is the creation of a new Russian national space station — a project that would entail splitting its modules from ISS. The strongest supporters of this proposal have always been Russia’s space industry contractors, like RSC Energia, and politicians like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.

Russian space officials continue to insist that they will add long-awaited modules to their segment of ISS, some as early as next year. At Le Bourget last month, RSC Energia chief Vladimir Solntsev said that the Nauka multipurpose lab module will be launched next year, followed by similarly delayed launches of a new energy module and a docking module.

In Energia’s annual report, released in late June, the company claimed that these three modules will be used to form the basis of a future Russian space station beyond 2024 or 2028. The new Russian station, Energia said in its report, will operate “continuously,” meaning it has no specific lifetime, since Russia can simply rotate out old modules and replace them with new ones.

However, nothing is certain about the future of Russia’s space station modules, says Ivan Kosenkov, an analyst at the Skolkovo Innovation Center’s Space Cluster outside Moscow. “It is questionable whether the new modules will be launched anytime soon. But it is plausible and feasible to separate them from ISS, though that proposal’s implementation is uncertain.”

RSC Energia says the Nauka multipurpose lab, shown here in 2014, will be launched to the ISS in 2018. Credit: Energia/Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews
RSC Energia says the Nauka multipurpose lab, shown here in 2014, will be launched to the ISS in 2018. Credit: Energia

The China Question

China plans to launch its new space station in 2018, with construction slated to complete around 2022. Komarov, during his press conference at Le Bourget, said that the Chinese have offered Russia a place in their program, RIA Novosti  quoted him as saying. “We are exchanging proposals on participation in projects,” he said, but there are complications.

The biggest obstacle to joining Russian modules to the Chinese station is a big one: orbital inclination. China plans to launch at 43 degrees off the equator — an orbit advantageous to its own launch facilities and capabilities. But Russia wants 51 degrees, a concession that Western partners acceded to during construction of ISS.

What China has on its side is political impetus — something that may be lacking amid efforts to chart a future with the West beyond ISS. Amid a strengthening of Moscow-Beijing ties, the two have been actively pursuing high-tech joint ventures. Considering that Chinese space technology is an offshoot of older Soviet tech, the two sides can conceivably work together with ease.

“So far, this is more of a political statement than a real policy,” Kosenkov says. There is no real vision, will, or funding for cooperation with China. “A Russia-Chinese station is within the spectrum of ‘what is possible,’ but I think scientific cooperation with NASA won’t change much, and future manned exploration missions will include some sort of international framework.”

Ultimately, a new space station is far from the Russian space program’s top concern, Kosenkov argues. Reform of the domestic space industry under Roscosmos’ new state-corporation umbrella continue to dominate the agenda, as well as efforts to slow the decay of industrial enterprises and important national security capabilities in space.

And according to Kosenkov, “some in Russia are already arguing that manned spaceflight has a poor return on investment, that it has to be cut.”

Russia’s path is not likely to be expressed in any official Russian space policy until a funding program beyond 2025 is drafted. With Russia’s economy still in the lurch, and the fact that the 2025 program was delayed for almost two years as the government rewrote and reevaluated its plans several times, such a decision doesn’t seem to be coming soon.