Russia Says They’re Pulling Out Of The ISS Yet Again So Let’s Look At What This May Mean

Iss Bye

Yesterday, the space news that I saw on my space phone as I warmed my feet by my space heater was almost entirely focused on one thing: the Russians said they’d be leaving the International Space Station after 2024. A lot of these articles wrung their spacesuit gloves wondering if the ISS could continue without the help of the Russians or the Russian ISS modules. But here’s the thing: this isn’t really news. The Russians have made this exact same threat before, as long ago as 2014, when they said they’d be leaving the ISS by 2020, two years ago. Maybe they’ll do it this time, maybe they won’t, but either way, the ISS will be fine. Different, sure, but if everyone else wants to keep it going, I’m pretty sure they can.

In fact, the rest of the ISS partners are in a better place than ever before, because unlike Russia’s threat to leave back in 2014, this time NASA and ESA and Japan and the other ISS partner countries have a way to get to the orbital lab without relying on Russian Soyuz capsules, thanks to the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules that have been ferrying crews to the ISS and back since 2020.

And, if things go well with Boeing’s upcoming crewed Starliner test mission, then NASA and everyone else will have a second vehicle available to take crews to and from the ISS. The rest of the ISS simply isn’t reliant on Russia for anything irreplaceable anymore, and none of this should really be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention for the past eight or so years.

In fact, back in 2014, I thought about what might happen if Russia decided to separate their modules from the ISS, what is known as the Russian Orbital Segment:

Russianiss

Just so we’re all on the same page, the Russian segment includes four modules, two large, and two small, and one module that’s Russian, but owned by the United States. The modules are Zvezda, a Service Module that is essentially like an upgraded version of the old Mir core module, and mostly provides living space and reboost capability for the ISS.

Nauka is the most recent addition, Russia’s first new module in about 20 years, and is a laboratory module. Rassvet and Poisk are both known as Mini Research modules and also provide docking ports for visiting Soyuz crew capsules or Progress resupply ships.

The idea that Russia may want to decouple these modules from the rest of the ISS and form their own independent station is hardly a secret, since it’s been talked about since 2014, and there were plans to begin deploying in 2019, which, as you know, never happened. But that seems to be the plan, and that plan uses the Nauka laboratory module as its primary research facility:

Ross

So, let’s say the Russians do exactly what they’ve been saying they’re going to do for years; where does that leave the ISS? Honestly, not in a bad place. The key component that would be lost would be Zvezda’s engines to re-boost the stations orbit (well, also a toilet and a nice table for everyone to gather around for meals) but NASA just demonstrated the ability to re-boost the station using the engines on their uncrewed Cygnus resupply craft.

In fact, NASA has had plans for an alternate propulsion module for the ISS from the beginning, as a backup in case there was anything wrong with the Zvezda module. If the Russians decide to take their toys and go, I would expect NASA would simply use Cygnus craft to keep the station boosted until they built a possible propulsion module, perhaps a duplicate of the Power and Propulsion Module already being built for the lunar-orbiting Gateway station, which will begin construction in 2024. The point is that this is hardly an unsolvable problem; an interim solution already exists with Cygnus, and a more permanent solution has already been considered.

Gateway

As far as I’m concerned, the more space stations in orbit, the better. The Chinese Space Agency just docked their Wentian laboratory module to their Tiangong space station a few days ago, so why not go ahead and populate the neighborhood? NASA has committed to keeping the ISS going to 2030, and there’s really no reason the loss of the Russian segment should change that. Let them make their own station.

Knock yourselves out, Russia, and don’t let the airlock hit you where the good lord split you.

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31 Responses

  1. It’s mostly sad, because for a few decades in there, we were able to put aside our political differences and gather knowledge in space, together. Sure, we can all do it separately, but it’s as a more divided planet.

  2. I’m split, part of me wants the ISS to remain up there doing the fun science that it does, the inspiring astronaut guitar tunes, and the working shoulder to shoulder with others across the world, but part of me thinks that this is a HUGE out-of-date abomination that has cost $150,000,000,000 dollars and counting and must be constantly pushed back into orbit at massive costs. It’s a tough one….

    1. I’m also leaning heavily that way. If it doesnt provide any real benefit,scrap the project.Let china and russia waste money while we put effort into solving real problems down here on earth.

    2. I’m not one of those “defund NASA and give their budget to the homeless” types, but I am a big proponent of getting the best “bang for your buck” when it comes to the projects NASA takes on, and manned spaceflight has never looked like a particularly good value to me.

      The ISS is about as far off the ground as the distance between New York and Washington DC. Astronomically speaking, that’s nothing. A huge portion of the astronauts’ time on the station is simply spent maintaining the station. NASA has designed, built, launched, and operated rovers that explore the surface of Mars for less than the cost of two week-long shuttle missions. They’ve built probes that work for decades exploring the outer planets of our solar system and beyond. They’ve built space telescopes that literally look into the past.

      I’m sure it’s a lot of fun floating around the ISS eating Jell-o from a tube, looking at the (frankly stunning) views of Earth out the windows, and listening to Chris Hadfield play his guitar, but when you compare the cost to do it against other unmanned science programs, I’m just not sure we’re getting the most science per dollar. People are the most fragile component of any mission. Remove the human from the mission, and you’re able to do so much more.

      Of course, there is an intangible factor as well. We can always use more scientists and engineers, and every current scientist/engineer talks about how they were inspired to enter the field by something they saw when they were younger — and manned spaceflight has been a commonly-cited factor in the past. I don’t think that’ll necessarily continue, though. With private space companies beginning to open up space travel to more and more people, the concept is starting to lose its luster. Everyone was excited when Captain Kirk took his ride to space, but shortly after wasn’t Michael Strahan supposed to go up? Did he? I don’t know. It was old news by that point already. I can’t get into the thought process of the young people anymore, but I’d be much more inspired to study science and math by seeing the Perseverance Mars mission data or the James Webb Space Telescope photos than I would be by seeing some astronauts taking each other’s blood pressure while doing little more than camping in our astronomical backyard.

      My proposal: Take a small fraction (1% maybe?) of NASA’s manned spaceflight budget and use it for outreach to improve communications and help get the word out about the amazing work that NASA does. Apply the remainder to unmanned projects. Send probes to visit every planet; put rovers on every planet and moon you can; send spacecraft to deep space; aim telescopes at every section of the sky. There’s so much universe out there to explore and so much to learn!

      1. I know it’s anecdata, but my kids are completely not fussed by manned space travel, despite our attempts to share our own excitement. They do, however, get angry at the carbon footprint of vanity space tourism for billionaires and famous has-beens, and I can’t at all blame them.

      2. “We can always use more scientists and engineers”

        I disagree. IMO we have far too many scientists and engineers. You’ll know there’s an ACTUAL shortage when companies desperate for technical labor throw C average ivy league MBA money at anyone who can fog a laser mirror, actual S&E talent have compensation packages that the CEO would envy and post docs are but a horrible distant memory told in hushed tones by elder Ph.Ds to the young’uns gathered around the Bunsen burner.

    3. I did my senior ethics paper on this very subject: is it ethical to spend trillions on space exploration when so many humans don’t have enough food or a safe place to sleep?
      Much to my chagrin, I was forced by my own research to conclude that it was NOT ethical. But the 9 year-old me watching Star Wars in 1977 says otherwise.

      1. This is sort of what I was getting at. We could build a lot of decent public housing (and adequately maintain it) for the cost of the JSF program, to name only one tax-funded boondoggle, though, so if we’re getting the knives out, NASA shouldn’t be first in line

    4. I feel the same way. Just like I did with the demise of the Shuttle program.

      I knew rationally it wasn’t a good use of money given what we used it for, but emotionally, damn it, it made me feel like we at least had a symbol that we knew what we were doing and would one day be blasting across the galaxy boldly seeking out new life and new civilizations.

      1. I hear you both. Given the things that money could do to materially improve the day to day lives of Americans, it seems hard to justify. However, the feds firehose a lot more money at a lot of unnecessary stuff that is actively making the day to day lives of Americans worse, so this probably isn’t where I’d start economizing, were it up to me. Science is generally worthwhile and space is cool.

        1. You put it well, and I agree.

          What gave me pause about the Shuttle program/gives me pause about the ISS is that we end up not really using it for anything that couldn’t be done better/cheaper another way (ala Duke of Kent’s post). They eventually seem to become basically a symbol that we have a space program, rather than these critical vectors for our scientific quests.

          Don’t get me wrong, I love ’em (as a kid, I had a treasured book of Shuttle blueprints), I just want us to use our scarce resources as well as we can.

          I’m really excited about the Space-X era for that. Those boosters that land themselves on carriers still boggle my mind.

  3. ” But here’s the thing: this isn’t really news. The Russians have made this exact same threat before, as long ago as 2014, when they said they’d be leaving the ISS by 2020, two years ago. Maybe they’ll do it this time, maybe they won’t, but either way, the ISS will be fine. ”

    This reminds me of a couple of past relationships where the girl I was dating would try to use the threat of breaking up to get her way. Or they’d break up and then want to get back together.

    In one case, the end played out like
    Her: “If you don’t do X, then we’re done.”
    Me: “Well I guess we’re done then. Good luck”. And then I got in my car and left… and 5 minutes later, my cell phone exploded with bazillion messages from her asking me to come back.

    Or in another case it was a breakup and when she wanted to get back together, my response was “There’s no point. I’m not interested and I’m tired of riding this rollercoaster. I’d rather be single.”

    I predict that’s what’s gonna happen to Russia sooner or later if they carry on like this. Everyone will get fed up and then when the Russians say sorry and make another empty promise to play nice, the response will be along the lines of “sorry… not interested in working with an unreliable partner. We don’t need you. ”

    “Knock yourselves out, Russia, and don’t let the airlock hit you where the good lord split you.”

    Exactly.

    1. I think this is not quite the same. The Russian space scientists want to stay in the international relationships because that gives them great access to data, ideas, and facilities they can’t fund on their own. The leaders of Roscosmos are appointed and therefore politicians. They also know they need the international community but have to appear to be anti-American. Tough talk, cheap symbols, and threats are all they have. I suspect there is a back channel trying to convince the partners not to just walk away but one sad day it will break down.

  4. It’s a little more complicated than you make it out to be Torch.

    Cygnus is currently launched by a Ukrainian built Antares rocket using Russian engines. They only have two more rockets worth of engines. I believe the upper stage us also Ukrainian built, so limited supply of rockets there as well.

    It should be possible to launch Cygnus on a SpaceX Falcon 9, but that would take some design work etc… You could also use a SpaceX Dragon in theory, but it is less than ideal for an ISS re-boost because of the orientation of the thrusters and the fuel they use. The Cygnus would be better for boosting. One issue with either of these is you need to flip the ISS 90 degrees before you fire the thrusters and then you get into a mess with the reaction control wheels used to keep the ISS steady in orbit. You have to spin these up in order to counteract the offset thrust because of where the Cygnus docks on the station, which means you need additional burns to slow those wheels back down. With the Russian boost module, I don’t think they need to re-orient the ISS to do a boost burn.

    In the end, what pieces of the IIS the Russians take with them when they go home will have an effect on this also. It may open up a more favorable docking port for boosting the ISS. And then there is the half built “Interim Propulsion Module” in storage. This is an American built boost module that was started as a backup for the Russian module in case that didn’t make it to orbit. This is purely a boost module, but needs to be finished which would take a few years I’m sure.

    One other note on all this is it’s not just boost a couple times a year to stay in orbit, it’s collision avoidance. I believe I’ve read somewhere that the Russian boost module has more powerful engines so you can move the ISS out of the way pretty quick. I don’t think the Cygnus has that same capability. Was not able to find details on that to back that up.

    This video from Scott Manley explains some of the issues. I’m pretty sure he or maybe the Everyday Astronaut had more on this subject.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1V-lj-jCqe8

  5. I feel like were are returning the a Cold War relationship with the Russians and it may end the same way, with Russia bankrupting their country trying to maintain their international prestige (space station, hyper-missiles) and influence (war in Ukraine, petrochemicals).

  6. I love your new obsession of tangentially smearing Russia, Torch. But you’re just too weird to be truly validated by the exceptionalism hive mind. It’s ok though, not everyone can be brave and break free of the monoculture. Just don’t get your heart broken when they do a #rollcoal on your ChangLi

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