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From Heaven to Earth. Russia's departure from ISS means end is nigh for Russian manned cosmonautics

Konstantin Sergeyev

Russia is ready to leave the International Space Station “after 2024,” the new head of Roscosmos Yuri Borisov says. After the war began, his predecessor Dmitry Rogozin gave the West ultimatums, demanding that sanctions be lifted from Russian cosmonautics, and NASA condemned the crew of the Russian ISS segment, who had unfurled “LDNR” flags. At the same time, it was reported that the Russian woman Anna Kikina would fly into space on a private Crew Dragon ship. The history of relations between Russia and the United States in space has been evolving in this manner – with grandiose ups and dramatic downs, with great joint achievements and serious unresolvable contradictions. But if Russia has so far managed to remain among the leaders in manned spaceflight, the country now risks losing competence for launching humans into space.

ALL CARDS
  • A Brief Background: Soyuz-Apollo and Mir

  • Putin's noughties

  • War

  • Where do we go from here?

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A Brief Background: Soyuz-Apollo and Mir

The history of the International Space Station goes back to the Soyuz-Apollo project, which was implemented by two competing superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. At the time, it was presented as a cosmic handshake that helped the two rivals move toward peaceful coexistence. But after the legendary docking, there was no continuation because of new political differences, primarily due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The next stage of cooperation in space began in the 1990s, when the Americans decided to join the post-Soviet Mir space program. Then American shuttles flew to the Russian station, and American and European astronauts began using the station for their work. For the U.S., it was not so much cooperation for the sake of cooperation as it was acquaintance with Russian experience in long-duration space flights and the creation of long-term orbital stations. One of the goals of the Americans in funding the Russian space program was national security. The Americans were interested in having Russian rocket specialists stay and work at home, rather than help build rockets in other countries that were not always friendly towards the United States.

By the end of the 1990s, it became clear that Mir had already exhausted its lifespan, and the Americans focused on building a new station. The International Space Station was born as a hybrid of the American Freedom project and the Soviet Mir-2. The Russian segment of the ISS, completed in 2021, is technically a continuation of the Soviet Mir program, and some structural elements, such as the hull, fuel tanks and engines of the Nauka module, were even produced in the Soviet Union, more than 30 years ago.

Putin's noughties

In the noughties, Russian-American cooperation in astronautics was extremely productive. Russian scientific instruments were mounted on American interplanetary spacecraft that were studying the Moon and Mars. Russian spacecraft almost saved American manned space exploration after the Columbia space shuttle accident.

In the late noughties NASA mulled over more ambitious tasks associated with returning to the Moon and reaching Mars, and the Constellation program came into being. And Roscosmos was seen as a reliable partner in this endeavor. For example, modules produced by RSC Energia were planned as part of a possible NASA circumlunar space station.

Then came 2014. The annexation of Crimea and the downing of the Boeing over Donbass seriously shook the prospects of joint space exploration. The U.S. imposed sanctions against Russia and banned the supply of important electronics.

Yet, the sanctions were imposed by the Pentagon and the State Department and were not directly related to NASA projects. The projects in which the U.S. depended on Russia - the ISS and the RD-180 rocket engines - did not fall under the sanctions. The Americans were ready to give up on the engines right away, but at the time, the Pentagon’s and NASA’s launches were dependent on the supplies, so the sanctions were imposed but postponed until 2023. The ISS remained outside the scope of the sanctions because American astronauts flew to the station only on Russian spacecraft. In 2011, the U.S. curtailed the shuttle program, hoping that developing private companies will create a cheaper and safer replacement for them. Until then, NASA had decided to rely on Roscosmos to deliver crews to the station.

In 2015, the U.S. company Orbital Sciences ordered a batch of RD-181 engines from Russia, needed to supply the ISS, and the new contract met no objections from U.S. politicians. The relationship was marred only by the scandal over the hole drilled in a spaceship in 2018 and Roskosmos representatives’ suggestion that a U.S. astronaut was to blame. The accidents in the Nauka module also did not increase confidence in the Russian side.

From the book by the American astronaut Scott Kelly “Endurance. My Year in Space.”

About Gennady Padalka:
He’s a natural leader, gruffly shouting out orders when necessary but listening carefully when one of his crew has another perspective. He’s a person I trust implicitly. Once, in Moscow, near the Kremlin, I saw him break away from his fellow cosmonauts to pay his respects at the site where an opposition politician had been murdered, possibly by surrogates of Vladimir Putin. For a cosmonaut, an employee of Putin’s government, that gesture was risky. The other Russians with us seemed to be reluctant even to discuss the murder, but not Gennady.
About cooperation in space:
The Soyuz-FG is the grandchild of the Soviet R-7, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7 was designed during the Cold War for launching nuclear weapons at American targets, and I can’t help remembering how as a child I was aware that New York City, and my suburb of West Orange, New Jersey, would certainly have been among the first targets to be instantly vaporized by a Soviet attack. Today, I’m standing inside their formerly secret facility, discussing with two Russians our plans to trust one another with our lives while riding to space on this converted weapon.
Gennady, Misha, and I all served in our militaries before being chosen to fly in space, and though it’s something we never talk about, we all know we could have been ordered to kill one another. Now we are taking part in the largest peaceful international collaboration in history. When people ask whether the space station is worth the expense, this is something I always point out. What is it worth to see two former bitter enemies transform weapons into transport for exploration and the pursuit of scientific knowledge? What is it worth to see former enemy nations turn their warriors into crewmates and lifelong friends? This is impossible to put a dollar figure on, but to me it’s one of the things that makes this project worth the expense, even worth risking our lives.
About relations with Russians:
I’m often asked how well we get along with the Russians, and people never quite seem to believe me when I say there are no issues. People from our countries encounter cultural misunderstandings every day. To Russians, Americans can at first come across as naïve and weak. To Americans, Russians can seem stony and aloof, but I’ve learned this is just one layer. (I often think of a phrase I once read describing the Russian temperament as “the brotherhood of the downtrodden,” the idea that Russians are bound by their shared history of war and disaster. I thought I read it in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but I’ve never been able to find it in any translation; maybe I read it in Russian and this was my own translation.) We make an effort to learn about and respect one another’s cultures, and we have agreed to carry out this huge and challenging project together, so we work to understand and see the best in one another.

War

February 24, 2022 was an important milestone in the treatment of Russia by almost all countries. The U.S. and Europe began to impose sanctions that touched Russian cosmonautics.

The Europeans reacted more emotionally. For example, the expensive and important project to launch the European Mars rover by a Russian rocket, ExoMars, was frozen and then practically cancelled.

Although the White House kept imposing sanctions one after another, NASA continued to work with Roscosmos as if nothing had happened. However, Roscosmos itself, represented by its now former head Dmitry Rogozin, launched its own “star war” against Europe and America and stopped deliveries of RD-181 engines to the United States. RIA Novosti published a video showing Russian cosmonauts leaving the ISS and the station falling down without the support of Russian engines. The video was created with the participation of the Roscosmos press service.

Dmitry Rogozin even tried to issue an ultimatum to the ISS partners with demands to lift the sanctions, but he was simply ignored.

Despite the deterioration of foreign relations, cooperation on board the ISS continued and hasn’t stopped to this day. The reason is simple - the United States is still dependent on Russia to maintain the station’s orbit and orientation. Without Roscosmos, it will indeed fall, although U.S. astronauts already have their own spacecraft to fly.

Of course, both cosmonauts and employees of space rocket companies are not isolated from Russian society and can also express their feelings about the war. At the initiative of Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos employees were required to hold rallies, fundraisers for humanitarian aid to Donbass, and launches of rockets marked with the letter “Z.” The apotheosis was the unfurling of “LNR” and “DNR” flags in the Russian segment of the ISS to celebrate the seizure of Lysychansk by the Russian army.

Most of the cosmonauts in principle do not comment on the war or how they feel about it. The only public statements opposing the war that can be found in the short interview Gennady Padalka gave to Novaya Gazeta, where he supported veteran pilot Alexander Garnayev, who condemned the war against Ukraine. On the other hand, Alexander Misurkin’s posts on social media support the president and the Russian army and wish for a speedy completion of the “special operation.” By that time Padalka had already left the cosmonaut corps. Misurkin was a member of the corps but left a few weeks after his statement supporting the war.

The current cosmonauts, on the other hand, are extremely nonfree people. They devoted themselves to serving the high dream of space, but there are many obstacles on the way to it, not only objective, but also subjective. So it turns out that they are silent, and this silence can be both for and against the war.

The American astronaut Scott Kelly, who had already left the NASA astronaut corps, said that among Russian cosmonauts there were some who supported the war, and some who disapproved but chose not to express it publicly.

The cosmonauts who unfurled “DNR” and “LNR” flags and welcomed the “liberation of the “LNR” apparently did so by order of Roscosmos, yet they did not object although they had an opportunity to refuse. In response, NASA officially condemned the use of the station for political purposes and for supporting the war. Rogozin responded in his boorish style, recalling the sanctions: “Either take off the cross or put on underpants”.

The Hill, an American new portal, published a column by the American astronaut Terry Verst in which he used a harsher tone calling for refusal to cooperate with Russia in space.

We cannot continue business as usual on the ISS while Russia uses it as a propaganda tool to support killing thousands of innocent Ukrainians and causing global economic devastation. To keep things in perspective, Putin has essentially brought Europe back to 1941. Would the Allies have tolerated a joint project of Arctic exploration with (even well-intentioned) German scientists supportive of Germany’s war footing in 1941?
The costs of our partnership with Russia on the ISS are now unfortunately much higher than the few remaining benefits. I truly hope that we will someday return to cooperation in a post-Putin Russia, but for now, NASA and other partner nations must make the tough decision to begin the process of disengagement. The world is watching.

The new head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, practically made his wish come true by announcing Russia's withdrawal from the ISS. Just before that, Roscosmos and NASA signed an agreement on so-called “cross-flights to the ISS,” whereby Russian spacecraft would carry American astronauts and American spacecraft would carry Russian cosmonauts. It means that cooperation in space will continues until 2024, at least in the plans.

Where do we go from here?

At the meeting with the president, Yuri Borisov described an alternative to the ISS - the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS). If we try to look into the future and imagine how realistic these plans are, we can see two possible vectors. The first is positive, the second is negative.

The positive future of Russian “sovereign cosmonautics” can be imagined using the example of China. It has long been under sanctions, and its space industry has been developing independently, although it has borrowed ideas and know-how from wherever it could. China’s example shows that the tactic of copying and creative reinvention is not only a profitable strategy in the race for the leader but also the basis for independent development. Now China has almost reached its ceiling in space, when there is nothing left to repeat, and it is necessary to do something of its own. And China is already doing it, both in Earth orbit and on the Moon.

Yet, there’s a difference between China and Russia that deprives Russia of any hope to follow the same path - it is the difference in the scale of the economies. The size of economy determines how much funding the state is able to allocate for its space ambitions. For example, China spends three times more on cosmonautics than Russia, and the countries’ economies differ in size by a factor of ten. It turns out that for China, space has a lower priority than for Russia, but its successes are greater. It is not only the size of the economy that matters, but also its structure: China has a manufacturing economy, while Russia has a resource economy. It means that even with equal financing, Chinese manufacturers will give more to Chinese cosmonautics and at a lower price than Russian manufacturers give to Russian cosmonautics. It is not just about microelectronics, but also about materials and equipment.

It is not only the size of the economy that matters, but also its structure. China has a manufacturing economy while Russia has a resource economy

The likelihood that the Russian economy will show rapid growth in the next few years and that Russia's cosmonautics will become an even higher priority for the state is extremely low, and therefore the whole positive scenario seems unrealistic.

The negative scenario is related to the loss of competence to launch humans into space. This may happen if the financing of Russian cosmonautics remains at the same level or is reduced, which will postpone the launching of the ROSS. The beginning of its construction in space has been scheduled for 2028, which is impossible under the current circumstances.

Even if the ISS will be phased out from 2024 to 2028, the unavailability of the ROSS will lead to a pause in manned space flights. Such a pause may be very dangerous, because the absence of production may lead to a loss of competence due to brain drain, changes in production chains and the disruption of cooperation. The U.S. went through it twice, and both times it required creation of a completely new manned flight system. Without additional funding Roscosmos will simply be unable to create anything new and will lose what it already had.

However, the probability of a negative scenario is also not 100%, most likely a hybrid scenario will be realized. The importance of manned space flights for state propaganda purposes is quite high, so Russia will probably postpone its departure from the International Space Station for as long as it can, and when it does happen, Russia will launch spacecraft on autonomous missions, even in the absence of a station of its own.

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