Russia's space ambitions grow despite diplomatic tensions with West

·5-min read
AP

Moscow has said that it will leave the International Space Station "after 2024," against a background of political tension with the West. Analysts have warned the move could lead to a halt of Russian-crewed flights. Moscow will now focus on building its own space hub.

The confirmation of the long-mooted move comes as ties unravel between the Kremlin and the West over Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine and several rounds of devastating sanctions against Russia, including its space sector.

The Russian space administration, Roscosmos has told the German Aerospace Center that it will no longer take part in "joint space experiments" on the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, Roscosmos suspended launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana's Kourou, withdrawing around a hundred of its workers.

Space experts said Russia's departure from the International Space Station would seriously affect the country's space sector and deal a significant blow to its programme of crewed flights, a major source of Russian pride.

"Of course, we will fulfil all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made," Yury Borisov, the new head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, told President Vladimir Putin, according to a Kremlin account of their meeting.

"I think that by this time we will start putting together a Russian orbital station," Borisov added, calling it the domestic space programme's main "priority".

United States surprised

"It's an unfortunate development given the critical scientific work performed at the ISS, the valuable professional collaboration our space agencies have had over the years," State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that Washington had been surprised by the announcement.

In a statement to AFP, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the agency "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 ISS is due to be retired after 2024, although US space agency NASA says it can remain operational until at least 2030.

Until now, space exploration has been one of the few areas where cooperation between Russia and the United States and its allies had not been wrecked by tensions over Ukraine and elsewhere.

The ISS was launched in 1998 at a time of hope for US-Russia cooperation following their Space Race competition during the Cold War.

Russia is heavily reliant on imports of everything from manufacturing equipment to consumer goods, and the effects of Western sanctions are expected to wreak havoc on the country's economy in the long term.

Space expert Vadim Lukashevich said space science cannot flourish in a heavily sanctioned country.

"If the ISS ceases to exist in 2024, we will have nowhere to fly," Lukashevich told AFP. "At stake is the very preservation of manned flights in Russia, the birthplace of cosmonautics."

Technical isolation

Pointing to Russia's growing scientific and technological isolation, Lukashevich said the authorities could not plan more than several months in advance and added that even if Russia builds an orbiting station, it would be a throwback to the 1980s.

"It will be archaic, like an old woman's flat, with a push-button telephone and a record player," he said.

Space analyst Vitaly Yegorov struck a similar note, saying it was next to impossible to build a new orbiting station from scratch in a few years.

Yegorov also said Russia's departure from the ISS meant Moscow might have to put on ice its programme of manned flights "for several years" or even "indefinitely".

The move could also see Russia abandon its chief spaceport, Baikonur, which it is renting from Kazakhstan, Yegorov said.

Russian Soyuz rockets were the only way to reach the International Space Station until SpaceX, run by billionaire Elon Musk, debuted a capsule in 2020.

Setbacks, scandals

The Soviet space programme can boast of a number of key accomplishments, including sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first satellite four years earlier.

But experts say Roscosmos is now a shadow of its former self and has in recent years suffered a series of setbacks, including corruption scandals and the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft.

Borisov, appointed in mid-July, replaced Dmitry Rogozin, a firebrand politician known for his bombastic statements.

Rogozin had previously warned that without cooperation from Moscow, the ISS could de-orbit and fall on US or European territory.

Mars project on ice?

Another victim is the Rosalind Franklin rover, whose launch under the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission had already been postponed from 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

The rover, which is designed to drill into Mars to search for signs of life, is now "very unlikely" to launch this year, the European Space Agency said.

The ESA's rover was to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Russian rocket, then taken down to the Martian soil by Russia's Kazachok lander.

Getting the Rosalind Franklin, named after an English chemist and DNA pioneer, into space without Russian help would require huge revisions -- and the window to launch only comes around every two years.

"It is heartbreaking for science and scientists who have built up links over the years and invested years of work," said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a specialist in space policy at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

(With newswires)

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