Six weeks after NASA announced that it would be cutting ties with Russia, except for their collaboration on the ISS, Russia has gone a step further, saying that it plans to stop participating in the ISS after 2020.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, said that Russia will use its resources to focus on other projects. In the statement, he said, “We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicises everything.” He also mentioned “inappropriate” sanctions, including plans to deny the export of high-tech equipment to Russia. In turn, Russia says that while it is ready to deliver engines used to build widely-used Atlas V rockets, it will only do so on the “condition that they will not be used to launch military satellites.” Um…
Despite the announcement, NASA “has not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.” Sucks to be the last to know, doesn’t it? In fact, NASA’s ISS website doesn’t mention a thing about it. Instead, it focuses on another event from yesterday — a crew returned from six months on the ISS. The crew, who made news for taking the Olympic torch for a spacewalk, was comprised of Koichi Wakata (Kirobo’s conversation companion), American Rick Mastracchio, and Russian Mikhail Tyurin (there are still currently two cosmonauts aboard the ISS and another on the next crew scheduled for a May 28 launch). As per usual, the crew traveled to and from the ISS on a Russian Soyuz capsule, which is currently our only way of getting astronauts to the ISS. Many have advocated finding other ways to get there that don’t require our dependence on a country with whom our relationship is quickly souring. Some new shuttle plans are in the works, but despite the success of private companies running cargo flights to the ISS, we currently don’t have any other way of getting people there. I have to wonder if SpaceX will attempt to fill the void.
Russia’s separation from the ISS would be a blow to US-Russia relations, which were strengthened by collaboration on the ISS, particularly during the Cold War. In January, the Obama administration made space enthusiasts happy by extending the run of the ISS until 2024, but Russia’s exit from the cooperative enterprise raises questions about the feasibility of that extension. Rogozin implied that, despite the separation, Russia could continue using its part of the station: “The Russian segment can exist independently from the American one. The U.S. one cannot.” I didn’t know the station had such clear lines drawn regarding what belongs to whom. Here’s hoping this doesn’t devolve into a two kids fighting in the backseat scenario.
It’s quite possible that, if Russia decides to go it alone when it comes to space research and missions, overall exploration and colonization efforts would be hampered, largely due to the division of resources. While collaboration is generally ideal, both in terms of symbolism and practicality, I have made the argument that competition between countries could renew public interest in space. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about Russia as a competitor (I was thinking more about China). Strange to think that the next space might be a rematch.