Plan To Extend Participation Overshadows Possible 2024 Exit

Russia’s announcement that it will continue participating in the International Space Station until 2024 is an important and positive development, even granting that Moscow probably had little choice if it wants to keep its venerable human spaceflight program in business over the next decade.

The news should be welcomed not only by NASA, which has taken the lead in seeking an extended ISS mission, but also by those who have been clamoring to use the orbital outpost for research or as a platform for launching small satellites. The fact that these users, many of them commercial, have encountered bottlenecks of late — in part because of the October failure of an Antares rocket used to carry cargo to the ISS — is a clear indicator of the strong demand.

Russia’s new plan, announced in February by the nation’s space agency, Roscosmos, comes more than a year after the United States declared its intention to operate the orbital outpost for four more years, to 2024, and invited its partners — also including Canada, Europe and Japan — to follow suit. Since then relations between Russia and the West have taken a slide over Russia’s February 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and resulting U.S. sanctions, leading Russian officials to declare last spring — prematurely, it now appears — that Roscosmos would be pulling out of the program come 2020.

The recent reversal did, of course, come with a notable qualifier: After 2024, Russia says it will remove its modules from the ISS and use them to create its own orbital outpost. That’s not terribly surprising. While current station operations have been unaffected by the tensions over Ukraine, officials say planning for the future has effectively ground to a halt.

Cosmonaut Elena Serova
Cosmonaut Elena Serova shown working in the Russian part of the ISS. Credit: NASA

Roscosmos characterized its proposed ISS defection as a first step in a broader strategic plan that would see Russia land cosmonauts on the moon in the 2030 timeframe.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, testifying before Congress in early March, said the agency is already developing a contingency plan in case Roscosmos removes its modules. Although nobody has committed to station beyond 2024, NASA believes the outpost could be safely operated until 2028.

While it’s never too early to begin thinking about these sorts of things, NASA is a couple of important developments removed from having to take any specific steps to deal with a Russian exit.

To begin with, it is by no means clear that Russia’s ISS disassembly plan is practical, or even feasible, particularly given the fact that NASA’s space shuttle, which played an indispensable role in assembling the space station, is out of the game. Neither NASA nor Russia has anything available or in the development pipeline that would replace the shuttle’s capabilities.

Moreover, Russia over time might well come to realize that it makes more sense to stick with the current program, particularly given its economic situation. As already noted, it took Moscow less than a year to back away from its declaration that it would abandon the ISS in six years.

It’s also important to note that NASA has yet to secure agreement from Canada, Europe and Japan to participate in the station beyond 2020, when their current agreements expire. None of these partners seems in any hurry to commit to an extension, in large part because of the investment required.

NASA and Roscosmos probably could operate the ISS without the other partners, but whether it would be worth it is another question entirely.

Getting all of the ISS partners onboard with the 2024 extension is the more important near-term issue and where U.S. diplomatic efforts should be focused. Russia’s commitment to the extension is an important first step in that direction and overshadows the possibility that it will depart four years later.