End of an Era

Russia plans to leave its decades-long partnership with NASA after 2024 and leave the International Space Station (ISS) for good. This is according to the newly appointed head of the Russian space agency, Yury Borisov. The new Roscosmos chief announced that “the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made.”

Borisov continued, “You know that we are working within the framework of international cooperation at the International Space Station. Undoubtedly, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made.” 

An array of international astronauts are shown here in this 2016 photo. Image Credit: rbth.com

NASA announced back in February that it intends to keep operating the International Space Station until the end of 2030, when the plan is for it to be deorbited and crash into the Pacific Ocean. The replacement for the aging ISS would likely be a commercially operated platform that would serve as an interstellar site for international collaboration and scientific research, albeit without Russian or Chinese participation. More on that in a bit.

Robyn Gatens, Director of the International Space Station for NASA, says the US has yet to receive official word from the Russians about their desire to sever ties with the ISS. She says,

“The Russians, just like us are thinking ahead to what’s next for them. As we are planning transition after 2030 to commercially operated space stations in low earth orbit, they have a similar plan. And so they’re thinking about that transition as well. We haven’t received any official word from the partner as to the news today, so we’ll be talking more about their plan going forward.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson continued with comments in the same vein, “NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030 and is coordinating with our partners. But, unfortunately, NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”

Russo-Sino Cooperation in Space

It should be noted that this is not the first time the Russians have threatened to take their ball and go home due to the pressure of US and European sanctions levied upon them because of their war of aggression in Ukraine. Dmitry Rogozin, Borisov’s immediate predecessor, repeatedly threatened to do so before he was relieved of his position earlier this month. But this time, the Russians have somewhere else to go. Have you ever heard of Tiangong? That’s China’s space station, and it is being constructed in low earth orbit between 340 and 450 km above the planet’s surface.

Artist’s rendering of what China’s Tiangong Space Station will look like once it’s completed. Image Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

Tiangong’s core module, Tianhe, is already in place. Taikonauts (the name China has given its space travelers) have recently spent over 180 days there before safely returning to Earth. And China has quite an ambitious schedule to complete its space station. They plan to launch six significant missions before the year’s end to finish the construction of Tiangong.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Long March 5B blasted off from China’s Wenghang launch site carrying a solar-powered new lab, the Wentian experiment module, to be added to the Tiangong space station.

The Long March 5B carrier rocket blasts off from the Wenchang launch site in China’s Hainan province on July 24. Image Credit: Zhang Liyun/AP

So, what does this have to do with Russia? Last year Russia and China signed a joint “memorandum of understanding” agreement to create an international lunar research station. That’s right, “lunar,” as in “on the moon.” It’s supposed to be an international research station, but the US has not been invited to join. Perhaps this is because we already have plans to do the same thing.

The document describes the proposed Moonbase as a:

“Comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification.”

Dumping the US and working with the Chinese would be a foreseeable first step to constructing “Moonbase China.” 

National Security Implications

Don’t think for a second that all of this is going unnoticed by those closely monitoring the US national security interests; it is not. The burgeoning China-Russia relationship has serious national security implications for the US and may trigger a second “space race” of sorts. That’s not just me talking; that’s according to a panel of experts discussing the matter at the recent China Aerospace Studies Institute conference.

Kevin Pollpeter, a senior research scientist at the CNA think tank China Studies Division, said, “The two countries’ space cooperation, including in the military realm, has become inextricable since 2018 and works against U.S. interests.” He continued, “I don’t think we can separate China and Russia. I just don’t think that’s possible. While the countries do not have completely overlapping security concerns, they share a strong desire to counter U.S. leadership, including in outer space. What we need to do is, we need to mitigate whatever problems that relationship may cause for us.”

It comes down to this; I don’t see China and Russia “playing nice” together in space. Especially since one is a superpower on the decline and the other is on the rise. And both are alphas; both want to be in charge. China has more money, but Russia has a much longer and richer history in space exploration. It seems their only binding trait is their mutual dislike and distrust of the Western world.

Is that enough to build a strong, long-lasting Sino-Russo (or is that Russo-Sino) space program? Only time will tell.