International Space Station (ISS) November 2021
NASA postponed a Nov. 30 spacewalk outside the International Space Station just hours before it was scheduled to begin, citing a notification of debris expected to pass close to the station. Credit: NASA

Updated 5 p.m. Eastern with Nelson statement.

WASHINGTON — NASA officials said July 26 they have received no official notification from Roscosmos of plans to end cooperation on the International Space Station despite comments from that agency’s new leader.

Russian media reported that Yuri Borisov, who took over as director general of Roscosmos July 15, told Russian president Vladimir Putin that the agency had decided to end cooperation on the ISS after 2024.

“We will definitely fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to withdraw from this station after 2024 has been made,” Borisov told Putin, according to a TASS report. Roscosmos will instead focus on developing its own national space station called the Russian Orbital Service Station, or ROSS.

NASA officials, speaking at the ISS Research and Development Conference here, said they have not been formally notified of any plans by Roscosmos to terminate its participation in the station. “We haven’t received any official word from the partner as to the news today,” said Robyn Gatens, ISS director at NASA Headquarters.

She speculated that the comments referenced Russia’s long-term plans for low Earth orbit operations after the ISS, much as NASA is working to stimulate development of commercial space stations to succeed the ISS. “I think the Russians, just like us, are thinking ahead to what’s next for them. As we’re planning for a transition after 2030 to commercially owned and operated space stations in low Earth orbit, they have similar plans.”

Gatens spoke after a live video link with NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Jessica Watkins on the ISS. “We haven’t heard anything officially” about Russia’s plans, Lindgren said, adding that “everybody is working together” on the station now to carry out research and keep the station functioning.

In a statement late July 26, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also said the agency has not been notified by Roscosmos of any plans to end ISS cooperation. “NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is coordinating with our partners. NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low Earth orbit.”

The White House announced at the end of last year its intent to formally extend ISS operations from 2024 to 2030, a move that ISS partners Canada, Europe and Japan, but not Russia, have endorsed. NASA authorization legislation being considered by Congress as part of a bill called the CHIPS Act would formally authorize that extension.

“We’re going to go to 2030 full up,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, during comments at the conference. “Anybody who thinks that there is a different plan, you’re wrong. We’re going to 2030.”

He acknowledged that the ISS partnership has “struggles” but that NASA was committed to work through them. He noted that he was in Moscow last week to meet with Russian officials just after finalizing a seat barter agreement that will allow Russian cosmonauts to fly on commercial crew vehicles and American astronauts to fly on Soyuz spacecraft.

Montalbano declined to answer questions immediately after the conference panel. A NASA spokesperson did not respond to questions about Borisov’s comments.

It’s unclear if Borisov’s comments reflect any change in Russia’s position. Roscosmos has previously discussed establishing a national space station and have been reluctant to commit to an ISS extension beyond 2024, but has also not taken any formal steps to end its participation in the ISS partnership.

Industry sources noted the “after 2024” language is vague and does not mean that Roscosmos will exit the station in 2024. It’s unlikely, they note, that ROSS will be ready to support crews before the end of the decade because Roscosmos has just started the effort and also has limited resources available for it. Others, though, cautioned that NASA should not ignore those comments and be prepared for a Russian departure from the station before 2030.

Any Russian departure from the ISS could also be an opportunity. “We need to grow beyond the Cold War paradigm,” Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire Space and a former NASA official, said on a policy panel at the conference. “We should view this as an opportunity to broaden the ISS partnership and look at more innovative ways to integrate commercial partners onto the ISS.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...