The end of an era for the International Space Station as Russia looks east

The International Space Station, the world’s largest collaboration in science and engineering, has been a cosmopolitan meeting point for astronauts for two decades.

Just this month, a Russian Soyuz rocket carried an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to the laboratory, orbiting 420 km above the Earth’s surface on April 9. Eight days later, another Soyuz rocket brought another US-Russian trio back to Earth – and on Friday The SpaceX spacecraft put two more Americans, one Japanese and one French, into orbit; their Dragon capsule will dock with the 23-year-old station on Saturday.

So varied coming and going, however, is coming to an end. Russia announced this week that it will withdraw from the $ 150 billion ISS in 2025, ending a remarkable period of international cooperation that dates back in its planning to the period of perestroika at the end of the Cold War.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the astronauts of the Crew-2 mission, taking off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 23, 2021 © Aubrey Gemignani / NASA / AFP via Getty Images

Despite growing tensions between Russia and the United States over the past decade, space agencies in both countries have continued to work closely together, alongside their European, Japanese and Canadian counterparts. According to NASA, 243 people from 19 countries have visited the ISS since 2000.

“Although there were some difficulties at the beginning because the Russian and American space agencies had very different working methods, we have reached a certain degree of operational maturity, so in terms of crew dynamics, I have only heard positive things about astronauts and astronauts. cosmonauts work together, ”said Professor Anu Ojha, director of the UK’s National Space Academy and advisor to the European Space Agency.

In the early years of building the ISS modules and assembling them in space from 1998, the Russians and their Western partners were dependent on each other. “NASA and Esa could not have built the space station without Russian expertise,” Ojha said. “The Russians were masters of building modular space stations.”

Thirteen people on the space station in 2010
Thirteen people aboard the space station in 2010 – the largest crew on the ISS to date © NASA

Western teams, for their part, needed Russian rockets to transport materials and people to and from the ISS. This dependence increased when Nasa withdrew the space shuttle in 2011, leaving Soyuz as the only passenger vehicle available to put astronauts into orbit – a source of pride for Russia that ended last year when Nasa took over. started using Elon Musk’s SpaceX system.

For Roscosmos, the cash-strapped Russian space agency, collaboration with the ISS has resulted in essential access to Western funding. NASA spent $ 3.9 billion on Soyuz seats to transport astronauts to the ISS between 2011 and 2019 after removing the shuttle, according to the agency’s inspector general, Paul Martin.

While astronaut Mark Vande Hei’s trip to the ISS this month may not be an American’s last in a Russian rocket, the vast majority of non-Russian astronauts will travel either on SpaceX or on Boeing’s delayed Starliner rocket, which is expected to enter service next year.

For Russia, the decision to end participation in the ISS should lead to increased space collaboration with China – part of a larger pivot to Beijing through the Kremlin.

Since Western sanctions were first imposed on Moscow in response to its annexation of Crimea in 2014, cutting off some financial and trade channels, Russia has redoubled its efforts to strengthen ties with China. Countries have concluded defense deals and energy reconciliations, while bilateral trade nearly doubled from 2010 to reach $ 110 billion in 2019.

Based on the personal chemistry between two strongmen Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, relations have grown stronger as relations with Washington have deteriorated for the two countries.

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, inside the capsule at the ramp of Launch of Launch Complex 39A ahead of the Crew-2 mission, April 23, 2021, at Kennedy’s NASA Space Center in Florida © NASA TV / AFP via Getty Images

Barbed wire rhetoric from Moscow and Washington has increased in recent years, each claiming the other is seeking to militarize space. Last July, the United States accused Russia of firing a projectile from one of its satellites in an alleged weapons test, while Moscow said the United States “openly viewed space as a military theater ”.

Roscosmos last year rejected an offer from the United States to join the NASA-led Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. In March, Russia and China agreed to jointly develop a moon base to “promote the peaceful exploration and use of outer space for all mankind,” according to the memorandum of understanding.

The Russian space agency also announced on Wednesday its intention to launch its own orbital space station by 2030, using reused modules originally designed for the ISS.

Some structures of the ISS are showing their age. “Maturity would be a polite way to put it,” Ojha said. “Interfacing the hardware architecture of the late 1990s with modern laptops and software can present interesting challenges.”

For the first 15 years, the ISS crews focused on assembly and engineering work, which means the science in the microgravity environment is only just beginning.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who returned to Earth last week, told a press conference on Wednesday about the hundreds of hours she had spent in orbit on biology experiments ranging from reading to DNA on the space station to culture human heart tissue and vegetables. “The radishes were delicious,” she says. “We gave them five star reviews.”

The most important area of ​​research at the ISS has been efforts to understand the long-term effects of space travel on human health, in preparation for planned attempts to colonize the moon or travel to Mars.

British astronaut Tim Peake running on treadmill at the International Space Station in 2016

British astronaut Tim Peake ran the London Marathon while strapped to an International Space Station treadmill in 2016 © AP

The future of the ISS after the current partnership agreements expire at the end of 2024 remains to be negotiated. “From a technical point of view, we have cleared the ISS to fly until the end of 2028,” Nasa told the Financial Times. “Our analysis did not identify any issues that would prevent us from extending beyond 2028 if necessary,” although the power and communications systems would need to be upgraded.

Ultimately, however, the 440-ton ISS will come to the end of its life and will need to be brought back to Earth. “Elimination is not a trivial matter,” said Martin Rees, British astronomer royal. “He will have to descend into an uninhabited region of the South Pacific.”

Until then, it will continue to host astronauts as it orbits the Earth, but an era is already drawing to a close.

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