A Giant Leap (Backwards) for Humanity: What the Russia-Ukraine War Means for the ISS

The International Space Station was built not only in the name of science and exploration, but also as a symbol of unity. Five space agencies, some representing countries that had been bitter Cold War rivals just a decade before the launch of the ISS, came together to build something out of a sci-fi novel: a house among the stars (well, in Low Earth Orbit) for people from all over the world to work together for the sake of scientific progress, high above the Earth politics that ruled the rock below. At least that was the idea.

While there has been a lot of noise and fury on social media channels thus far, international cooperation in space seems to be going on unimpeded. What should we do with all this fuss, and what effects could it have on the actual ISS?

Politics and Tweets

Mark Vande HeissAstronaut Mark Vande Heiss

Much has changed in the 2.5 decades since the station’s first modules were launched into space. Political relations that slowly began to recover after the Cold War have now been unraveling for years, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine being the latest catalyst for global discord. As a result, the idealistic high ground of the ISS is more in danger today than ever before.

The most recent challenge comes directly from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. In a recent statement (in Russian, which I admittedly do not speak), Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, threatened to leave US astronaut Mark Vande Hei at the station and disconnect the Russian modules in order to punish the US for new imposed sanctions.

Vande Hei is currently scheduled to leave the station in a few weeks via a Russian Soyuz capsule to end his record-breaking 355 days in space. Upon return, the capsule must land in Kazakhstan before the passengers, Vande Hei and two cosmonauts, are returned to Baikonur Cosmodrome. Fortunately, Roscosmos recanted their threat before the third seat cosmonauts tour their pod and promised to bring Vande Hei back to Earth – but the threat of splitting the station lingers.

What is possible?

Roscosmos's image of the Russian section detachingRoscosmos’s image of the Russian section detaching

The ISS is a modular beast. It was launched in parts over the years, each piece a different module of what would one day be a complete station. The final assembly consists of an American section (eight modules) and a Russian section (six modules), plus two Japanese modules and a European module. What Rogozin has threatened is essentially pack up and leave – untie the Russian section and essentially pull out of the international partnership. Roscosmos even made a rather unhinged video showing the modules loosening and floating away. It is not immediately clear whether the Russian section would be dismantled and taken off track, or whether Roscosmos would somehow be able to turn the Russian section into its own independent station.

NASA has expressed its disbelief at Russia’s ability to simply drift into the sunset and maintain an operational station. Last week, the head of NASA’s ISS program, Joel Montalbano, said that “the International Space Station is designed to be interdependent, and we work together, it’s not a process where one group can separate and function.” The US section cannot function without the thrust and fuel of Russia, and the Russian section cannot function without the power and communications of the US. It is, as Rogozin himself recently stated, “a family, where a separation within a station is not possible”.

A Twitter thread with Scott Kelly and Dmitry RogozinKelly Calls On Rogozin To Delete His Threatening Tweet

While it may seem like this takes their feet out of Russia’s threats, the interdependence makes them even scarier. If Roscosmos lived up to its word, the rest of the ISS could have a hard time maintaining its orbit – although Elon Musk has suggested (via Twitter, of course) that SpaceX could provide a solution (perhaps using Dragon 2 capsules? ) to keep the ISS in orbit.

Twitter has so far played a unique role in many facets of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the space industry is no exception. Former astronaut Scott Kelly is engaged in a tweet-swinging battle with Dmitry Rogozin, in which Rogozin once again dropped a thinly veiled threat, implying the ISS’s days may be numbered. He quickly deleted the Tweet, but not before Kelly took a screenshot for everyone to seeand wondered how Rogozin even had access to Twittera site that the Russian government blocked earlier this month.

Kelly too tweeted that he would return a received medal from Russia “For Merit in Space Exploration”, writing: “Please give it to a Russian mother whose son died in this unjust war. I am sending the medal to the Russian embassy in Washington. Good luck.”

For all the saber chatter emanating from Roskosmos, NASA is taking it to heart. Administrator Jim Nelson said, “That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spits out every now and then. But in the end he worked with us.”


All this talk of splitting up the station might have you wondering – how many years does it actually have left?

Not as much as you’d hope. The current plan is for the ISS to come to an end in a watery grave in January 2031, less than nine years from now. NASA and most of the other space agencies involved in the project have already agreed they would work to keep the station alive until at least 2028, but even before tensions with Russia escalated recently, Roscosmos would not commit to shutting down the station. support after 2024. context, the Russian threat of prematurely leaving the ISS program is really just part of the Cyrillic writing on the station’s aging walls.

Losing Roscosmos as a partner in the international space community would be a setback to say the least and would certainly bring an end to the ISS. For decades, space exploration and scientific advancements were some of the few things that brought Russia together with the US and Europe – the crew of the ISS regularly consisted of explorers from all over the world, all working and living together as they stormed around the Earth. at 7.7 km/s.

In the nearly decade between NASA’s Shuttle and Commercial Crew programs, American astronauts relied on Soyuz rockets for their ride to space, and Russian cosmonauts still routinely train at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. The competences of Russia and the US/EU complement each other and together make up a larger amount. The ISS has served as an ambitious beacon of global cooperation for more than two decades, and it would be a terrible shame and a huge step backwards toward human development to see the next generation of space stations built individually rather than collectively. .

This post A Giant Leap (Backwards) for Humanity: What the Russia-Ukraine War Means for the ISS

was original published at “https://hackaday.com/2022/03/21/one-giant-leap-backwards-for-humankind-what-the-russia-ukraine-war-means-for-the-iss/”