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Russia walking away from ISS

ISS (Image Source: Google)

The International Space Station (ISS) — the largest spacecraft ever built—faces an uncertain future with Russia’s decision to walk away from it. Moscow’s international obligations with the ISS were expected to continue well into the next decade. But terrestrial realpolitik caught up with the $100 billion space station in November when Russia’s space agency Roscosmos conveyed to NASA that it would end its participation in the ISS by 2020.

ISS:

ISS is the football-field sized station has more than 820 cubic metres of pressurised space, including an orbital complex with 13 rooms for a six-person crew and a large array of scientific experiments.

The ISS is perhaps the most visible example of international cooperation, helping hundreds of thousands of scientists at universities and companies across the world work on frontier science and engineering. It is also a potential launchpad for missions to the moon, Mars and the outer solar system. Fifteen countries helped build the ISS in 1998, with design inputs from five space agencies {NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada)}.

When the ISS became manned in 2001, astronauts and cosmonauts flew the US Space Shuttle and Russian Soyuz spacecraft to and from the space station. Robot cargo ships from Russia, Japan and Europe, docked to deliver equipment and provisions. Once NASA’s space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, space agencies depended on the Soyuz for transport, each astronaut paying Russia $70 million for a ticket to ride. Moscow’s decision to walk away will push this arrangement into uncertainty . A question mark now hangs not only over the 360-tonne orbiting lab, but over the very future of international cooperation in space exploration.

Why Russia is backing out?

Russia’s unexpected move could have a lot to do with the fallout of the Ukraine crisis and the sanction imposed by the US and the European Union.

The European Union and the United States have imposed new packages of economic sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. The new sanctions target the firms in Russia’s energy sector and three large defence firms, preventing the companies from raising money in the EU market.

In Moscow’s opinion the sanctions hurt the country’s industry and in turn economy which, makes it difficult for Russia to contribute to the ISS. In other words, the sanctions are boomeranging on the US, taking away the only means currently available for astronauts to reach the ISS: the Soyuz. Right now the Soyuz is the only space transport with a proven emergency launch escape system and an impeccable safety record. However, NASA is prepared, as it is working with private companies to have an American transport to the ISS in place by 2017.

The disturbing fact is Moscow will divert the investment in the ISS to build its own space station. Russia’s this move has compelling political and geostrategic reasons.

  • The planned space station, for instance, will have 13 degrees more orbital inclination than that of the ISS. That means, it would enable the station to cover 90% of Russia and the Arctic shelf compared with the 4% now possible on the ISS.
  • A Russian space station would also be accessible by heavy launchers from the Vostochny cosmodrome (in Russia’s Far East) as well as the military launch base in Plesetsk in the northern Arkhangelsk Region, which will reduce the Moscow’s dependence on the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (It is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility and Russia uses it for Soyuz flights). No wonder Russia hurriedly announced a $52 billion space programme to energise its space industry, and signed a surprising space cooperation agreement with China, which incidentally is also building its own space station.

Over the last two decades, politics on Earth never influenced the remarkable space cooperation between the US and Russia. Until now the world had taken US-Russian space cooperation for granted but this is not the case now. A new space race would be the worst thing to happen to international space collaboration.

ISRO has expressed its eagerness to join the ISS. If that happens, unexpected support for the ISS could come from India’s Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) which is nearing its final stages of testing. The RLV—a hyper plane that can touch outer space, launch satellites and return to Earth—has the potential to become an effective space taxi for the ISS.

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