For a long time, the United States has held a form of supremacy over matters relating to space. The country has the world’s most advanced space exploration plans, as well as the most profitable and largest private aerospace companies.
However, the threat from other countries has been more prominent over the past few years. Now, Russia appears to be gearing up to launch its own space station.
Last month, news sources confirmed that Yury Borisov, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, said in a government that the International Space Station (ISS) is a “disaster waiting to happen.” The station, which is managed by a joint effort between four countries (the United States, Japan, Russia, and Canada), has been mired in controversy for a while now. As Borisov seemed to let on, Russia could be looking to gain its autonomy.
As Borisov explained, Russia could pull out of the agreement that keeps the ISS operational as of 2025. The government official cited the deteriorating condition of the station, which was developed in 1998 by NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency).
"We can't risk the lives of our cosmonauts. The structure and the metal are getting old, and it can lead to irreversible consequences — to catastrophe," Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told state TV.
That same day, Borisov published a statement where he partially walked back his estimated departure date. According to a Science Magazine report, the government official pointed out that there is a need for a “technical separation,” which will put Russia in a better position to decide on its future and carry the other countries involved in the ISS project along.
No Time to Dally
It is no news that the Russian government is looking to gain its autonomy. The government officially announced its decision to withdraw from the ISS last month, claiming a desire to get its freedom.
For now, Roscosmos still owns a quarter of the space station - known as the Russian segment. The area is responsible for the craft’s control and navigation, without which the station will essentially lose all functionality. Roscosmos was set to launch the Nauka module - a final component of the ISS, which would provide the craft with functionalities like additional airlocks, research equipment, and auxiliary power. However, it has been confirmed that Nauka will no longer be with the ISS.
Instead, Nauka will form the core of the Russian Orbital ServiceStation (ROSS) - an equivalent of the ISS, which is set to begin operations in 2030. ROSS will serve as a successor to Mir and Salyut, two Russian space stations that were launched into lower Earth orbit in the 20th century.
As explained, ROSS is related to Mir and Salyut. The Russian ISS segment had initially been planned to be Mir 2, the largest station in orbit at the time. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the plan was revoked as Russia alone couldn’t complete the project. The country required additional help, and cooperation with the United States became more necessary.
Now, Russian officials believe that there is no longer a reason to cooperate with outsiders. The country now has enough experience and expertise with building a space station independently, and it doesn’t need help from anyone anymore.
The Shaky ISS
The ISS and its unsustainable structure have been news for a while now. The Russian segment has been particularly deteriorating, with failures in different sections - from life support to toilets. These issues became more significant last year when cosmonauts discovered an air leak that sucked an alarming rate of atmosphere from the station. Fixing the leak took some time and effort, but they managed to get it done.
Further cracks were discovered last month. These were much easier to fix, but they established that the metal fatigue in the ISS was now a severe problem.
Russian officials have blamed the station’s problems on aging. The ISS had an initial life expectancy of 15 years, with a possibility of 30. Authorities approved that extension in 2015, and the United States confirmed a commitment to keep funding the ISS until 2030.
While everyone seemed on board with the technical specifications, the air leak from last year made it clear that the ISS needed serious upgrades. If the U.S. government won’t help to implement the proper fixes, Russia would leave.
A Need for Autonomy
There is also the fact that tensions between the United States and Russia have been growing. Both have accused each other of militarizing space, and there seems to be an ever-widening gulf between them.
Also, the entry of private American companies means that Russia needs to find another way to be indispensable. The Soyuz capsule - made in Russia - had been the only way for moving American astronauts to the ISS since the United States retired its Space Shuttle Program back in 2011. Now that SpaceX is here with the Crew Dragon and Falcon vehicles, NASA doesn’t have to spend so much on Roscosmos anymore.
With Boeing’s Starliner on the way and Blue Origin making progress with New Shepard, the U.S. should have even more options to choose from. Less reliance on Russia means that the country will need to find a way to maintain its autonomy in space, and it seems that a detachment from the ISS together might be the best route.