The fate of the International Space Station hangs in the balance as tensions between Russia and the West escalate following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, given that the conflict is now nearly a month old and the old laboratory is still flying high, it appears that the partnership among Russia, the United States, and 13 other nations will continue to hold. This article will consider the future of the partnership from three different dimensions: technical, legal, and political. It starts with the solid premise, repeated over and over by NASA officials, that the United States wants to continue flying the International Space Station through at least 2024.
The real question about the near-term future of the International Space Station, therefore, is whether Russia wants to continue flying it. The answer is “probably yes.”
From a technical standpoint, the Space Station was established to be dependent upon contributions from both Russia and the United States to keep flying. NASA recently enumerated some of these ways in detail, but it boils down to this: The Russian segment needs power from the US segment, and the Russian side of the station is responsible for propulsion to maintain altitude and perform debris avoidance maneuvers.
That’s not to say the US segment could not function on its own. In its update, NASA basically said that it would be very difficult.
“The Space Station was not designed to be disassembled, and current interdependencies between each segment of the station prevent the US Orbital Segment and Russian Segment from operating independently,” NASA said. “Attempts to detach the US Orbital Segment and the Russian Segment would encounter major logistical and safety challenges given the multitude of external and internal connections, the need to control spacecraft attitude and altitude, and software interdependency.”
But it would not be impossible for NASA to continue flying the station. As Ars recently reported, thanks to NASA’s robust investments in commercial spaceflight over the last 15 years, the agency can call upon a variety of companies to provide emergency services to keep the US segment flying.
Russia, on the other hand, would very likely have to abandon its Space Station modules. Even with continuous replenishment of supplies from Progress supply vehicles, the station would not have sufficient power to keep operating for a long period of time. In other words, without the International Space Station, Russia has no real path forward for a civil space program.
The International Space Station is governed by a document called the Intergovernmental Agreement, or IGA. This document was first negotiated by the United States, Europe, Canada, and Japan in 1988. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States sought to bring Russia into the partnership, in part to keep former Soviet rocket scientists working on civil space activities rather than selling their talents to countries seeking to develop ICBMs or related military technology.
Essentially, NASA was willing to spend money to keep the Russian civil space program afloat, explained Melanie Saunders during an interview several years ago. She was involved as a negotiator for NASA in the 1990s, working with Russia on the Space Station partnership.
“They called it the ‘$400 million contract,'” she said of Russia. “It obviously has a contract number and a different technical name, but that was the way it was referred to. The idea was we were trying to make sure that we had the money we needed to get the Russians to do business the way we needed them to do business, to be able to work effectively together, and to make sure that we had funding there that would help us ensure that they kept their space experts employed in civil space.”
This led to an interim agreement between Russia and the United States in 1992, to be followed by the formal Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between all 15 nations, including Russia, in 1998. This document has since guided the Space Station, outlining the contributions of each member nation to keep the station flying. Legal experts say the agreement has held up very well for nearly a quarter-century. The current IGA runs through 2024.