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Geopolitics in orbit: Is the International Space Station at risk?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created uncertainty about the future of the collaborative project, which has enabled extraordinary scientific progress

Soyuz MS-21 spaceship approaching to the International Space Station
The Soyuz spacecraft, with Russian astronauts on board, approaches the International Space Station on March 18.AP

Ever since humankind set out to explore it, outer space has been a political playground. During the Cold War, investment in the space exploration sector reached stratospheric levels due to the space race between Russia and the United States. Thanks to this investment, the period between 1957 and 1969 saw a number of important milestones such as the launch of the first artificial satellite into orbit, the first trip to outer space and the first moon landing. The implications of space exploration are also political: to be a leader in this race is to be also at the forefront of technological development, which affects all areas of life.

These days the rules of the game are no longer those of the Cold War. In the eyes of governments, space exploration has lost relevance and, with it, funds: the percentage of federal budgets allocated to both NASA, the US space agency and Roscosmos, the Russian agency, is almost 10 times lower than it was in the 1960s.

As a counterbalance to the budget cuts, space strategy has taken a cooperative turn; resulting in a diplomatic dance in which the great powers no longer tread on each other’s toes.

The International Space Station (ISS), the successor to the Russian Mir base, is coordinated by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency (ESA, comprising 22 countries). Its creation in 1998 not only marked a turning point in relations between space agencies, but has also enabled extraordinary scientific progress. The ISS has been visited by more than 253 astronauts – including Spain’s Pedro Duque – and, using its microgravity conditions, more than 3,000 experiments have been carried out which have led to scientific advances applicable both on Earth and to future long-duration space missions.

Today, the future of the 420-ton station currently hangs by a thread. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has foreshortened the international cooperation strategy as countries around the world cut ties with the Russian science sector as part of the international push to place sanctions on the Putin regime.

The European Union has excluded Russia from its two most important research programs: Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020. In Spain, Science Minister Diana Morant has announced the suspension of all Spanish projects with Russian participation. The rupture has also reached the space exploration sector, where the ESA has suspended the ExoMars project. This mission, which was intended to send a robot explorer to Mars and had a budget of €1 billion, was scheduled for September this year.

Although the conflict with Russia has created doubts about the future of the ISS, it may serve to make the space agencies of other countries rethink the direction of their own strategy

For its part, Russia has stopped selling rockets to the US and canceled the launch of Soyuz rockets from the ESA base in French Guiana, where it was helping the European agency to send satellites into space.

Little wonder then that there is concern about the future of the ISS, where currently three US astronauts, one European astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts live together. Russia already suggested in 2021 that it would discontinue its involvement in the ISS after 2024 in order to focus on its own space fleet. Catalyzed by the conflict, this may happen sooner than expected, putting the entire project at risk. Roscosmos is in charge of the ISS rockets that provide the station with orbital tugs – small pushes that lift it several kilometers at a time and are essential because, in its 25-mile (400-kilometer) altitude orbit, the structure gradually loses energy. Without the Russian rockets to do the orbital tugs, the energy drain would cause the station to descend an average of 31 miles (50 km) per year, which is untenable for the project’s continuation.

But even if Russia chooses to continue on the ISS in the short term, alternatives to Russian resources must be sought.

“I doubt that such a collaboration will be sustainable much longer,” says Claude Nicollier, a Swiss ESA astronaut who has logged more than 1,000 hours in space. “The priority is to prevent the Putin government from trying to use it as a bargaining chip to reduce the current sanctions against Russia.”

This possibility has become more real since Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said on April 2 that Russian collaboration in space would return to normal only if sanctions were lifted. Autonomy from Russian technology on the ISS is possible – Nicollier notes that both other agencies and the private sector are capable of creating rockets to provide the orbital tugs. As a potential candidate for this Nicollier points to the US-based SpaceX, which frequently collaborates with space agencies in exchange for generous subsidies.

Still, even if the tasks of the Russian rockets could be carried out by another actor, it is unclear if the ISS could remain operational without Roscosmos. This is because certain instruments crucial to the control of the station are located in the Russian part of the structure, and the remaining astronauts would have to be able to operate them with ease. Nicollier, therefore, favors cutting the thread and dropping the station in a controlled manner to focus on more remote horizons. “ESA is an exploration agency; it doesn’t make sense for it to cling to control of the near-Earth orbit, which we already know well,” he argues. His proposal is to let private companies build and maintain space laboratories in these orbits. In this way, government agencies would make use of these bases, but would save money that could be invested in more interesting and distant orbits around unknown objects. In practice, however, this would mean delegating near-Earth orbit management to a few mega-corporations and, moreover, sacrificing agency autonomy, a scenario that undoubtedly carries its own risks.

The driving force of science is political, and remembering that is essential to understanding both the possibilities of progress and the risks of stagnation. Although the conflict with Russia has created doubts about the future of the ISS, it may serve to make the space agencies of other countries rethink the direction of their own strategy. The current situation leaves no doubt that while space activity may concern the cosmos, it has everything to do with what happens on Earth.

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