The International Space Station (ISS) is a powerful symbol of international unity and cooperation in space. It is also the most expensive object humans have ever built. And it rests on a foundation of international innovation — including Russian technological achievements. Fifteen member nations keep the station aloft, but Dmitry “Dimon” Rogozin (head of Roscosmos, the Russian space corporation) only has eyes for the USA. Rogozin has made it a point to threaten the station, as a proxy for Putin’s bitter anger over American sanctions and support for Ukraine. So we’re here to lay out the facts and ask the question: What will happen to the International Space Station, in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
Full of Sound and Fury
First, let’s consider the Station’s “surface of exposure” to Russian antagonism. Then we’ll discuss the countermeasures NASA and others are taking to neuter the threats.
The US has historically depended on Russia’s Soyuz rocket for ferrying crew to and from the ISS. While the American side of the ISS provides life support, the Russian side provides propulsion and guidance. We’ve also needed their expendable Progress spacecraft to provision and refuel the Station in orbit. (Progress itself uses Soyuz rockets.)
Rocket engines are another point of contention here. To maintain the ISS, we need to get people and cargo into low earth orbit (LEO) and back again. ULA’s Atlas and Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets use Russian engines. Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft launches would have used RD-181s, which are now under embargo. At a news conference, Northrop Grumman deferred all questions about U.S. sanctions to NASA. “We have all the hardware needed to fulfill our NASA-contracted missions on Antares,” said launch program director Kurt Eberly. “Hopefully it can be resolved … [but] the best mitigation we can have is to be buying ahead.”
If Russia decides to act against the ISS itself, they have two options, depending on their level of antagonism. They can withdraw funding and/or support for the Russian orbital section, which would be stressful but survivable. Russia has also made more serious, direct threats to the ISS. ICYMI, one of the Kremlin’s propaganda networks released a chilling video depicting cosmonauts detaching the Russian Orbital Segment and letting the rest of the ISS fall to Earth. Rogozin has also intimated that someone could attempt direct sabotage.
It is true that Russia generally (and Roscosmos in specific) has signaled non-cooperation with their international partners in space. This comes in response to international sanctions levied after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To retaliate, Russia has recalled staff from the ESA launch cooperative site in French Guiana. They’ve halted international operations at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, from which Soyuz rockets launch. And they’ve stopped sales and withdrawn support for the rocket engines we’ve been buying from them.
But it doesn’t make sense for Russia to imperil the ISS itself, because of the collateral damage. First, dropping a 500-ton space station on some city from orbit (you don’t get to pick which city) is a great way to permanently forfeit your country’s independent access to space. Furthermore, Rogozin’s comments on whether the ISS flies over Russia are 100% bluster. The ISS does fly over Syria, Saudi Arabia and China — allies Russia cannot afford to alienate. The same is true for blowing up the ISS in orbit. Russian satellites have to dodge the same debris as everyone else. This is a game of chicken they know they can’t win.
‘They’re stealing hundreds of millions’
The ISS also flies over Kazakhstan, which houses the Baikonur launch complex Russia currently depends on for Soyuz launches. Russia can’t afford to risk Baikonur. Putin’s pet spaceport, Vostochny, is still under construction. The project has been mired in problems from day one. Since Roscosmos began construction in 2011, Vostochny has struggled with bankruptcies, arrests, and the imprisonment of dozens of top officials over embezzlement.
Vostochny hemorrhaged money on a scale we haven’t seen since Iraq. Some 11bn rubles simply vanished. Yuri Khrizman, former head of state construction firm Dalspetsstroy, is single-handedly responsible for embezzling more than five billion rubles — which is at least $200 in 2022 money. In 2019, corruption at Roscosmos accounted for some 40% of the total irregularity in Russia’s national balance sheet. Rogozin swept in with promises to drain the swamp, but he himself has become fat and prosperous with money siphoned from Vostochny.
Putin is aware of all this. At a government meeting in 2019, he fumed, “A hundred times people were told: Work transparently. But no! They’re stealing hundreds of millions.” That same year, now-imprisoned political activist Alexei Navalny went knives out in an HBO video criticizing the culture of corruption at Roscosmos.
“Dear Mr. Putin, let me do one very simple thing for you,” Navalny says. “Since you started talking about transparency, and since you keep demanding it, I’ll point my finger at the very top, very close to you, Mr. President. Who’s in charge of it? Roscosmos. And who’s in charge of Roscosmos? The person you appointed, Dmitry Rogozin.”
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Rogozin is no stranger to bombastic comments and trolling. Griefing the ISS on Twitter makes him feel like a big strong man. But we’re used to Soviet schwanzvergleich. Roscosmos has been slowly collapsing from the inside for the last decade, a victim of its leaders. Meanwhile, NASA spent that same decade divesting itself from dependence on Russia, funding domestic space projects, and opening LEO to civilian and commercial interests both domestic and international.
Rogozin has put forth lofty ideas on how Russia will build another space station — a better space station. With blackjack and hookers. He even posted a shot of workers painting over the flags of other nations on the Soyuz rocket. “The launchers at Baikonur decided that without the flags of some countries, our rocket would look more beautiful,” he said. But it’s a front. Russia’s entire space program is in crisis, from the crumbling concrete in the Vostochny launchpad all the way up to the drill holes in the Soyuz capsule. Putin and Rogozin are betting their power (and the future of Russia’s space program) on the idea that Russia can afford to alienate their international partners in space. Rogozin remains in charge at Vostochny despite the ongoing scandal. But he is a paper tiger.
‘Let the American broomstick fly’
Playing to his base, Rogozin announced that his agency will no longer sell rocket engines to American companies. “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know,” he said. But he’s counting on the Kremlin propaganda machine to suppress the fact that we don’t need an unending supply of Russian rocket engines. Any ship that reaches the ISS with the fuel the Station uses can serve as a fuel resupply. Furthermore, any ship that can get people safely to the ISS and back will work instead of Soyuz.
We aren’t entirely beholden to the Progress spacecraft, either. One Russian-built, American-owned module, Zarya, is capable of station-keeping. But just in case, NASA designed and built (with the help of the Naval Research Lab) an “Interim Control Module” that was meant to serve as a station-keeping backup, should Zarya fail or be destroyed. It’s still in mothballs at the NRL.
There are multiple independent American space companies, with launch vehicles either in production or in actual operation. SpaceX, with its Dragon spacecraft, is poised to step into the breach. As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply programs, Dragon spacecraft have already made successful flights to and from the ISS. Our ‘American broomstick’ is working just fine.
SpaceX isn’t the only real contender here, although its competitors are some months behind schedule. NASA is working with Boeing on the Starliner capsule, which was designed to be compatible with the Falcon 9. But the Starliner is also compatible with ULA’s upcoming Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. Vulcan Centaur, along with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 methane rocket engines. However, because the BE-4 is running late, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to use it in 2022.
Mind the Gap
NASA has made plain that a thriving commercial presence in LEO is the next step for humans as we expand off-world. But we’re not the only country with aspirations toward a LEO economy. To avoid the dreaded “space station gap,” NASA is funding the development of habitable commercial space stations. These orbital platforms will continue and expand our presence in LEO. Currently, NASA plans to deorbit the ISS in 2031. But the agency also wants a two-year overlap, where the ISS and its commercial successors will be operating at the same time.
In 2021, NASA awarded over $400 million to three companies, for the development of three proposed commercial LEO “destinations.” One is called the Orbital Reef. A joint project of Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, the Reef is intended as an orbiting “mixed-use business park.” There’s also Starlab: a collaboration between Nanoracks, their parent company Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin. The third award went to Northrop Grumman, which TechCrunch reports is “working with Dynetics to deliver a modular design based around its Cygnus spacecraft.”
‘Our Last, Best Hope for Peace’
There is no easy end in sight. None of these projects will be mission-ready until the mid-2020s. But they were in the works before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. NASA’s Commercial Crew program was not a knee-jerk response. Rogozin’s escalating war of words cannot stop America from shepherding the ISS to a graceful end.
Tensions continue to rise worldwide as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. Yesterday reports surfaced that Russia has asked China to enmesh itself in the Ukraine conflict by providing military backup. But aboard the ISS, cooler heads have thus far prevailed. At the end of March, an American astronaut named Mark Vande Hei will entrust his life to the Soyuz MS-19 as he returns from just under a year in space. Two cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Petr Dubrov, will ride in the capsule with him. They will land at Baikonur.
Meanwhile, retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly has been sparring with Rogozin in an absolutely exhausting Twitter feud. He returned a medal to Roscosmos, and struck a nerve by calling Rogozin by the familiar name ‘Dimon,’ a diminutive of Dmitry. He also told Rogozin to get a job at McDonald’s — if any of them are still open.
But Kelly believes we can still repair our orbital partnership with Russia. Like Babylon 5, this space station may represent “our last, best hope for peace” with Russia. “We need an example set that two countries that historically have not been on the most friendly of terms, can still work somewhere peacefully,” said Kelly. “And that somewhere is the International Space Station. That’s why we need to fight to keep it.”
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