Jul 27, 2022
International Space Station’s future in doubt after Russia announces withdrawal Transcript
The country’s space chief says Moscow will focus instead on building its own orbiting outpost, spurring concerns. Read the transcript here.
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As we reported earlier, Russia announced that it plans to pull out of the International Space Station after the year 2024, when the current agreement is set to expire. This has raised concerns over what it could mean for the future of the station and for NASA, of course. Our science correspondent Miles O’Brien is here to answer our questions. So hello Miles, do we think the Russians are serious about this?
Miles O’Brien: (00:26)
It’s hard to say Judy, there’s been an awful lot of bluster coming out of the Russian space program since the invasion of Ukraine, lots of trash talk, frankly, against NASA and the International Space Station. This time, a new director of the Russian Space Agency in with Vladimir Putin himself saying that Russia had decided to leave the space station partnership after 2024. And that had a little more definitive feel to it. But it’s worth pointing out that the contract for the entire space station does expire in 2024. NASA would like to keep it flying until 2030. So there might be a hint of reality in all of this because that’s when the contract expires.
So Miles, if this happens, if it’s real, how would it technically take place? Would they simply disengage from the space station or what?
Miles O’Brien: (01:19)
Yeah, it’s not so simple. It’s an extremely complex, intertwined connection. It’s not like loosening up four bolts and off go the Russians. It would take several space walks. A lot of the modules are very old, some of the oldest parts of the International Space Station. And one of them incidentally, Judy, the oldest was actually purchased by the US. So it’s actually US property, further complicating things. I suppose they could close the hatch and remove all the air from there. But the bottom line is it’s unclear at this point.
If they are no longer present and part of the space station, what does that mean for what’s left of the station?
Miles O’Brien: (02:05)
Well, there’s technological interdependence and the Russian side provides propulsion. It’s what lofts the space station and keeps it from falling down. Even though it’s 250 miles above us in space, there’s a little bit of wisp of an atmosphere there that actually puts a little drag on it and you need to boost it up every now and then. So they provided that with their freighters and with their space tug, which is aboard their side of the modules. So, and the US meanwhile produces all the electrical power. So that would limit the ability of the Russians to operate their modules on their own. So they’re very intertwined.
But if the Russians were no longer taking part in this, what could the alternative be? What else could be used?
Miles O’Brien: (02:53)
Well, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, which each have craft which fly to the International Space Station are looking at ways to turn a Dragon or a Cygnus spacecraft into sort of a tanker with a little bit of extra fuel to provide all that propulsion I was just talking about. There’s time to develop this because we’re talking about after 2024 after all. So I’m pretty confident that they’ll come up with a way.
And Miles, what about the Russians and where would this leave their space program if they left the space station?
Miles O’Brien: (03:27)
Well, it’s interesting. They really have no place to go. They’re talking about building yet another space station. They say they have a piece that they’re building on the ground, but the funding has been very limited. A lot of people say, “Well, maybe they’ll partner with the Chinese.” But the thing about the Chinese is their space station is in an orbital inclination or lane, which the Russians cannot physically get to from where they launch from. Little bit of orbital mechanics there, but suffice to say, they can’t reach the Chinese space station. And besides, the Chinese have shown no interest in partnering with anybody. They, I think, are enjoying proving they are a space power on their own.
So in the meantime, though, Miles as we wait for 2024, what about the relationship between Americans and the Russians? Is there tension there and are there any safety issues?
Miles O’Brien: (04:20)
It’s interesting because at the bench level, so to speak, the cosmonauts, the astronauts, the engineers, it’s pretty much been business as usual, Judy. As a matter of fact, the US astronaut on board the space station when told about this latest announcement said we’re just doing what we do here every day. And to my way of thinking, that’s the greatest accomplishment of this space station that it brought these former Cold War adversaries in space together to build this audacious space station. And now it just seems to be crumbling. And there are a lot of people inside NASA who are quite saddened by all this.
Yeah, we can only imagine after all the effort that’s gone into this. Miles, O’Brien, very good to have you with us. Thank you.
Miles O’Brien: (05:05)
You’re welcome, Judy.