More than 20 years ago, the launch of the ISS, a grand and complex human feat, was celebrated as a post-Cold War partnership between the US and Russia. Now, the announcement of Russia’s exit from the ISS could spell the end of an era for the space alliance between the rivals.
The Russian invasion of Ukrainian cities in February this year led to the global ostracisation of Russia with Western sanctions imposed on its economy. This cold-shouldering of Russia extended into the space industry as tensions between Russia and the West increased significantly. This strained relationship culminated in Russia’s announcement to opt out of the ISS after 2024.
Yuri Borisov, the new head of Roscosmos, explained that Russia’s departure process from the International Space Station could begin in 2024 and could take up to two years for the country to dissociate itself from the space station. This could mean that Russia would probably exit from the ISS around 2024 or 2025. But, at the same time, according to Reuters, NASA’s space operations chief mentioned that Moscow expects to stay on the ISS up until the completion of the Russian orbital outpost which could be around 2028.
Launching the ISS is no simple feat. It is one of the most complex endeavors attempted (with incredible success) by the human race. More importantly, it is a highly collaborative project that managed to bring several nations, even rivals, together in the name of humanity. So, the exit of Russia may come across as disappointing to some as it may mark the start to the end of a global alliance.
However, US veteran policy analyst, Marcia Smith, stated that every ISS partner is going to exit the collaboration “after 2024”. After all, the ISS is expected to be deorbited by 2031. In this manner, it does not come as a surprise for Russia to leave the ISS and go on to concentrate on setting up its own orbital infrastructure for space research. In fact, we are at a transition point for the space sector where we are witnessing nations forging their paths to their own space infrastructures (such as China’s Tiangong Station) and the active commercialisation of the industry with the rise in space tourism and private space labs. While with the expansion of the space industry nations are bound to take on their own routes, there is a concern among experts that Russia leaving this space cooperation with the West could not only hamper scientific research but could also give rise to the increased militarization of space.
Human activities on Earth today, including military campaigns, are for the most part dependent on space-based technologies. Space-technology has become highly crucial for nations to safeguard and control sensitive information and communications systems. In fact, Russia demonstrated its counter-space capabilities (simply put, space weapons) when it conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test on its own missile, creating more than 1,500 pieces of space debris in low orbit. So, the end of Russia’s partnership with the ISS might also mean the start to the militarisation of space from global security viewpoint.