The new head of Russia’s space agency announced Tuesday that Russia will leave the International Space Station after its current commitment expires at the end of 2024.
“The decision has been made to abandon the station after 2024,” said Yuri Borisov, who was appointed this month to head Roscosmos, a state-controlled corporation in charge of the country’s space program.
came the pronouncement during a meeting between Mr. Borisov and President Vladimir V. Putin From Russia. Mr. Borisov told Mr. Putin that Russia would fulfill its commitments until 2024. “I think that by then we will start to form the Russian orbital station,” he said.
Putin’s response: “Good.”
NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment and it is not clear whether Russia has formally told NASA and the other space station partners that it would abandon the project. In the past, NASA has said that it intends to continue operating the space station until the end of 2030.
“This could be a bluff by the Russians,” said Phil Larson, a White House space adviser during the Obama administration. “It could be revised or it could come to fruition.”
The announcement may not mean the station will cease to exist after 2024, but experts say it clouds the prospect of keeping the station running until the end of the decade.
“The withdrawal will take some time,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military and space analyst. “Most likely, we should interpret this as Russia’s refusal to extend the station’s operation until 2030.”
It is not known how long the station can operate without Russian involvement. The orbiting outpost consists of two sections, one run by NASA and the other by Russia. The two are interconnected. Much of the power on the Russian side comes from NASA solar panels, while the Russians provide propulsion to periodically raise orbit.
The station’s first module was launched in 1998 and astronauts have lived there since 2002. Built as a symbol of post-Cold War cooperation between the world’s two space superpowers, the partnership has weathered many ups and downs in bilateral relations between United States and Russia. Over the past 20 years, it has become a major laboratory for scientific research in space and a test bed for demonstrating business opportunities in orbit, such as space tourism and advanced manufacturing.
Speaking from orbit at a space station research conference, Kjell Lindgren, one of the NASA astronauts, said nothing had changed there.
“It’s very recent news,” he said, “so we haven’t heard anything officially. Of course, you know, we were trained to do a mission here, and that mission requires the entire crew.”
With tensions rising between Washington and Moscow after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian space officials, including Dmitry Rogozin, Borisov’s predecessor, had made statements in recent months that Russia planned to leave. But they left ambiguity about when or if a final decision had been made. NASA officials, who want to extend space station operations until 2030, have expressed confidence that Russia will stay.
For the most part, operations on the space station have continued without interruption. In March, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule as scheduled. NASA and Roscomos just struck a deal that would give Russian astronauts seats on US-built spacecraft in exchange for NASA astronauts being carried into orbit on Russian Soyuz rockets.
However, NASA this month slammed Russia after Roscosmos distributed photos of the three Russian astronauts on the space station holding the Russian-backed separatist flags in two provinces of Ukraine.
Russia has plans for its own space station, but Roscosmos has struggled financially for years. After the retirement of the American space shuttles in 2011, NASA had to buy seats on the Soyuz rockets, which provided a constant flow of money to the Russians. Those revenues dried up after SpaceX began providing transportation to NASA astronauts two years ago. Russia lost additional sources of revenue as a result of economic sanctions that prevented companies from Europe and other nations from launching satellites on their rockets.
“Without cooperation with the West, the Russian space program is impossible in all its parts, including the military,” said Dr. Luzin.
Russia is also seeking to cooperate more with China’s space program, which launched a laboratory module on Sunday to add to its space station, Tiangong. But Tiangong is not in an orbit that can be reached from Russia’s launch pads, and many of the talks between the two countries have focused on cooperation on lunar exploration.
“The prospect of cooperating with China is a fiction,” said Dr. Luzin. “The Chinese have looked at Russia as a possible partner until 2012 and have stopped ever since. Today, Russia cannot offer China anything in terms of space.”
Not long ago, it was the United States that wanted to kill off the International Space Station after 2024.
In 2018, the Trump administration proposed ending federal funding for the space station, hoping to move its astronauts to commercial stations. That initiative fizzled out a year later when NASA turned its attention to accelerating plans to send astronauts back to the moon.
NASA is still trying to push a market for future commercial space stations. In December, it awarded contracts worth a total of $415.6 million to three companies: Blue Origin of Kent, Washington; Houston Nanoracks; and Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia, to develop their designs.
NASA’s inspector general, however, has warned that even if the International Space Station continues into 2030, commercial follow-ups may not be ready in time, and then there could be a gap where NASA doesn’t have an orbiting lab to do research, especially on long-term effects. term in the health of zero gravity and radiation in astronauts.
If Russia’s decision leads to the abandonment of the ISS, then China will own the only space station in orbit. China has offered to bring astronauts from other nations to Tiangong. Astronauts of the European Space Agency have already trained with Chinese astronauts. NASA is generally prohibited from working directly with China in space.