The first piece of the International Space Station ever launched into orbit didn’t come from NASA, it actually came from Russia. The 41.2ft module – nicknamed “Zarya”, the Russian word for sunrise – took off on a seemingly gloomy day from a launch facility in Kazakhstan on November 20, 1998. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of geopolitical turmoil that began with the end of the Cold War in 1989 and ended with a partnership between two former enemies. which would last more than 30 years.
The United States pledged to work with Moscow on the ISS project not only because it represented peace between two previously antagonistic nations, but also because it could help strengthen democracy in Russia. Delegations from the two countries have met several times over the years in hushed and obscure meetings to work out the details. Once the dust clears, Russia would be the one to propel the world into a new era of space travel.
Thus, the launch of Zarya was not just the dawn of a new space age for studying the cosmos. It was an olive branch – a branch that crowned decades of tension, near-nuclear conflict, and the complete overhaul of world power as we knew it. If nations never knew peace on Earth, at least we could find it among the stars.
And now, just over 20 years later, it could all end with Russia too.
On July 26, Yury Borisov, the new director of the Moscow space agency Roscosmos, officially announced that the country would withdraw from the ISS after 2024 build their own space station. One day later, Russia clarified with NASA that it would remain with the ISS until at least 2028 – which, although technically after 2024, canceled the initial announcement.
“If they don’t pull out before 2028, in a sense, that’s okay,” John Logsdon, the former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told The Daily Beast. “The station is supposed to end in 2030 anyway. It is likely that the partners could agree on a termination date sometime before 2030.”
However, the country still plans to launch a new orbital outpost by 2030. In a recent maintenance, Vladimir Soloviev, flight director for the Russian part of the ISS, gave some indications on the future of a Russian station, which they named Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS). On the one hand, it would mostly operate autonomously without a permanent crew on board – which he stressed would be a “step forward, step back” for humanity, according to a translation.
However, that would be a clean break from one or more future commercial space stations that NASA plans to support. It is also a departure from the new Chinese space station Tiangong, which is currently equipped with astronauts.
There’s a reason these parties stick to people instead of intelligent machines. After all, having people at these orbital outposts allows for more hands-on research. Also, if something goes wrong on the station (what he often does), someone may be there to fix it immediately.
The planned Russian station would also have a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning it would pass above the Earth’s surface during local daylight hours. This would allow ROSS to easily study both poles of the Earth. It should be noted, however, that many research satellites orbiting the planet already do this.
While certainly less complex than the ISS or Tiangong, ROSS remains a colossal undertaking, especially considering the ambitious goal of launching part of it into orbit by 2030.
And that’s not even taking into account the arguably decrepit state of Roscosmos.
“Given the state of their space industry, I’d be shocked if they could do that, let alone by 2030.”
— Wendy Whitman Cobb, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies
“Given the state of their space industry, I would be shocked if they could do it, let alone by 2030,” said Wendy Whitman Cobb, space policy expert at the US Air Force School of Advanced. Air and Space Studies. The daily beast. She added that even NASA, which is better funded and equipped than Roscosmos, would struggle to meet the 2030 deadline. “So the fact that Russia is trying to come up with an entirely new system on its own seems questionable.”
“They should start now,” Logsdon explained. “And they can’t start now because they have very little money, and conducting operations on the ISS is very expensive.”
Of course, Moscow could partner with countries like China to put a station in orbit. But Cobb said Beijing had no real incentive to help them. On the contrary, getting the country to cooperate on something like Tiangong could undermine China’s achievements, she said. Russia would also have to be mostly beholden to the Chinese space program for the majority of technology like launchers – something it would probably prefer to have control over.
Yet the plans are significant in that they are the clearest indication yet that Russia is planning to follow through on what former Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin could only brag about: the country is putting ending the decades-long practice of international collaboration and cooperation in space. The peace in the cosmos is gone. Tensions are back in orbit and they might be here to stay…right?
“You might think astronauts are tripwires… Having people up there, whose lives might be in danger, makes it harder to do dangerous things that might harm them. ”
— Wendy Whitman Cobb, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies
Good, perhaps. It is more likely that space will continue to take a back seat to the consequences of geopolitical conflicts on land. “Having an orbital outpost has lost its political significance,” Logsdon said. “NASA is going to have private commercial stations. This is not high geopolitics. If Russia is building this facility, it almost makes orbital outposts so common that it doesn’t matter.
Cobb echoed the sentiment. In fact, she thinks the more outposts, labs and astronauts in orbit, the less likely they are to escalate tensions, at least in space.
“You might think astronauts are tripwires,” Cobb said. “I know it’s not nice to think about it that way. But having people up there, whose lives might be in danger, makes it harder to do dangerous things that might harm those people. This is why the Russian anti-satellite test last year was so worrying. They did it very close to the ISS and there is still a lot of debris up there that is actively threatening astronauts.
Think of it like nuclear deterrence theory. If you have Russian, Chinese, and American space stations up there, everyone has their skin in the game, so everyone has something to lose. It’s the space-age equivalent of mutual assured destruction, so “all of these actors are thinking twice about doing anything really crazy,” Cobb said.
For Logsdon, however, Russia’s withdrawal and his goals of getting there on his own are a grim illustration of one of the great disappointments of the space station era: it somehow failed, at least regarding its original promise to unite all of space. world in a mission greater than any country.
“The impact of the ISS on Earth-related politics that was hoped for was very limited,” Logsdon said. “We don’t have a democratic Russia. We have Putin. We have the invasion of Ukraine. The political importance of international cooperation on the station has lost its potency – if it ever had it.
But maybe that’s good. Russia still plans to be on the ISS for the next six years. Also, the orbital lab was never meant to last forever. Even before the messy break with Russia, it was living on borrowed time since it was technically well past its original expiration date of 15 years of operation (although the The Biden administration has extended its life to 2030).
So perhaps it’s fitting that the very country that launched the first piece of it into orbit – a module named after dawn – is then there when the sun sets on it for the last time.