Tensions between the United States and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine have made their way to the outer space domain. The packet of sanctions announced on Feb. 24 included measures directly targeting the Russian space program. Addressing this, President Biden remarked that “[the sanctions] will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
These sanctions were met with a rebuke from Dmitry Rogozin, the director-general of Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of NASA, and former deputy prime minister of Russia. In a Trump-like manner, Rogozin took to Twitter to raise his grievances about the implications of the sanctions. Alongside claiming that the U.S. already blocks certain Russian space-related imports and makes it harder for Western countries to launch commercial satellites on the Russian Soyuz rocket, he addressed the International Space Station. He wrote,“Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?” and suggested that the ISS could deorbit and fall into the U.S., Europe or even India or China. Russia is able to make these threats as the Russian modules and the Progress supply ships are the main sources of propulsion for the space station, yet the station’s orbit does not cross over Russian territory. With this in mind, the U.S. is working to activate the Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo freighter as a way to reboost the orbit of the ISS.
Despite Rogozin’s alarming tweets, NASA officials have affirmed that the U.S.-Russia partnership continues on the space station. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “Despite the challenges here on Earth, and they are substantial, NASA is committed to the seven astronauts and cosmonauts on board the International Space Station.” The most recent development is the question of whether U.S. astronaut Mark Vande will depart the ISS as planned with the two cosmonauts currently aboard the Soyuz spacecraft. Most likely, he will not be left on the space station given that Roscosmos has not made any formal announcement to confirm the taunts from Russian media.
Space station operations have persevered through diplomatic crises in the past. An important question to answer is what factors have contributed to the sustained cooperation between the United States and Russia regarding the International Space Station? From this, we can evaluate whether there is a future for space-based cooperation between the two superpowers. There seem to be four main contributing factors to this evaluation.
First, there are clear legal agreements regarding cooperation. The International Space Station was launched as a collaborative project between NASA, Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency in 1998. It was negotiated through the Intergovernmental Agreement that extended the national sovereignty of the participating states to different parts of the station. The IGA has been successful because it includes memoranda of understanding with more specific responsibilities and provides a flexible framework for operations.
Second, the ISS is engineered in such a way that it requirescooperation to operate. Different space agencies provide for and operate different segments of the station. As previously mentioned, the Russian modules are responsible for the propulsion of the station. Similarly, the U.S. modules are responsible for energy generation. One cannot work without the other. However, we must consider whether the addition of the Cygnus cargo freighter would give the United States an alternative option to cooperation with Russia. Similarly, while the U.S. has, in recent years, relied on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the station on the Soyuz rocket, the U.S. commercial space industry is providing more options like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flights. The U.S. could begin to rely on new partners to operate the space station, potentially alleviating its reliance on Russian operations.
Third, both the U.S. and Russia have sunk substantial costs into the ISS, so it is not in their interest to sabotage the project. The ISS cost $100 billion to construct and another $4 billion a year to maintain. With such a cost of construction and maintenance, it would be difficult to justify allowing the project to end prematurely. Additionally, the ISS also represents the scientific achievements of spacefaring nations around the world, an important legacy to uphold. There are people currently aboard the ISS, both American and Russian. The act of leaving an astronaut behind would elicit a severe reaction from the U.S. Given that the ISS’s retirement is planned for 2030, it is important to consider whether this crisis may lead to the decision to retire the ISS earlier than planned.
Fourth, NASA and Roscosmos have managed to keep the ISS separate from contentious U.S.-Russia politics for over 21 years now. Todd Harrison from the Aerospace Security Project remarked that the U.S. and Russia have “been able to keep it compartmentalized for so long.” The two countries continued to cooperate through the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and when Russian anti-satellite tests put the ISS in harm’s way by exploding one of its own satellites nearby in 2021. However, it may be possible that the severity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crossed an unprecedented line in what the U.S. would tolerate. As of now, signals point to no, as we see the U.S. and other European states imposing strict sanctions while avoiding active participation in the war.
While we cannot say for certain, these factors do indicate that Russia would not act against its own interests by deorbiting the ISS onto the U.S. or any of its allies. However, it does seem like there will be a direct impact on general space cooperation. For example, One Web, a satellite internet company affiliated with the British government, suspended its satellite launches on Russian Soyuz rockets. Additionally, Roscosmos announced it would no longer be selling rocket engines to American companies.
The topic of the governance of outer space, among other pertinent transnational issues that have been magnified by globalization and technology, will be discussed at the 2022 Norris and Margery Bendetson EPIIC International Symposium on Problems Without Passports from March 31 to April 2.