It’s been hailed as a post-Cold War collaboration for the good of humanity: two old rivals joining forces to launch the International Space Station (ISS) more than 20 years ago.
“The International Space Station is considered the most complex human engineering, scientific and collaborative feat ever achieved,” boasts the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
But as relations between Russia and the West become increasingly strained due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials in Moscow announced on Tuesday that Russia would withdraw from the ISS after 2024. and would instead focus on building its own competing space infrastructure.
Analysts say they fear Russia abandoning one of the last vestiges of cooperation with the West could set back scientific research and potentially lead to further weaponization of space.
“There have been rumors about this for some time, but it’s a sad day,” said Mubdi Rahman, the founder of Sidrat Research, a Toronto-based space technology company. “Even before the invasion of Ukraine and all [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s various assaults, there’s been some fragmentation in the space community with nations wanting to go there on their own.”
CBC News breaks down what Russia’s decision means for the ISS, space exploration and the politics of the afterlife.
WATCH | Russia will leave the ISS because of war tensions in Ukraine:
Who is currently involved in the ISS?
Launched in 1998, the main organizations working on the station, according to NASA, include the space agencies of the United States (NASA), Russia (ROSCOSMOS), Canada (CSA), Japan (JAXA) and Europe ( ESA), which includes the following participating countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Canada’s contribution, for example, represented only about 2.3% ownership of the station, said Adam Sirek, a professor at the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western University in London, Ont.
Why is Russia leaving now?
With Russian forces bombing Ukrainian cities and Western sanctions hitting Moscow’s economy, there had been rumors that Russia was leaving the ISS for some time.
Yuri Borisov, who heads Russian space company Roscosmos, made the announcement of Moscow’s planned departure from the initiative on Tuesday during a meeting with Putin.
Russia, Borisov said, would honor all current operational commitments before leaving.
Previously, Russia had signaled that it intended to leave the station after 2024, while NASA wanted it to continue operating until 2030.
Some analysts, however, see Russia’s announcement more as a public relations move than anything else.
“It’s not a story in my opinion,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies outer space politics, of Russia’s announcement. “Russians say this periodically,” he wrote in an email; then they continue to work on missions.
NASA did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CBC News, nor did the Canadian Space Agency.
What is Russia currently doing on the ISS?
Russian cosmonauts, technology and transport systems are responsible for a multitude of key functions for the ISS. Russia mainly built half of the station launched in 1998while the United States built the other half.
The ISS was originally designed so that technology could be shared between different countries; participants depend on each other.
For example, NASA’s solar panels provide much of the station’s power, while Russian technology stabilizes the ISS, keeping it where it needs to be in orbit around Earth.
“Sharing resources to do research in space has been one of the strengths of the ISS program,” Sirek said.
Additionally, Russia has been tasked with transporting cosmonauts to the station for recent missions. NASA has contracted transport missions to private companies like SpaceX.
“To be quite frank, the United States and the rest of the world still don’t have a viable, well-tested way to get to the ISS,” said Rahman of Sidrat Research. “Russian space vehicles have been the most reliable in getting people to the ISS.”
Are tensions between the West and Russia impacting the work of the station?
Geopolitical conflicts have obviously not spread to the decks of the ISS.
Just last week, Russian and European astronauts were on a seven-hour spacewalk together, during which they installed platforms on the ISS, deployed nanosatellites and replaced a protective window, according Nasa.
There is currently no suggestion from Russian officials that Moscow will stop providing transportation or other support to the station until 2024.
Earlier this month, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, NASA and Roscosmos announced an exchange deal that would see NASA astronaut Frank Rubio fly aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft in September and the Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina flying with SpaceX’s Crew-5 Dragon. Nothing was said in Tuesday’s announcement to suggest these pre-existing collaborations would be cancelled.
WATCH | Canadian civilians are heading to the ISS on a historic private mission:
Beyond 2024, getting spare parts for Russian-made components on the station will certainly be difficult in light of sanctions and general supply chain issues in building new parts from scratch, said Rahman said.
What’s happening on the ISS?
The station is home to a series of research projects that could not be carried out anywhere else. For example, it is used to conduct experiments on how long-term weightlessness affects the human body, according to Nasaand it is “the only place to test technologies that will take humanity further into space”.
The CSA and Roscosmos have also coordinated several projects on the ISS, said Western University’s Sirek, including space radiation research to allow humans to live longer off Earth.
“These partnerships and collaborations using Russian technology and parts of the Russian segment of the ISS have increased Canadian research output,” said Sirek.
MDA, the Ontario company behind Canadarm2 on the ISS and a key Canadian company involved with the station, declined to comment.
Is Russia’s decision a precursor to a new arms race in space?
Space technology is already crucial to military campaigns on Earth, including the war in Ukraine, Rahman said, as nations battle to retain control of sensitive information and communications systems.
“That’s why countries like China and India are making sure they have a functioning and well-funded space program,” he said.
But he says the move is likely to heighten concerns among military planners and dim hopes for cooperation on joint science projects for the benefit of humanity.
“The weaponization of space happens the minute the rocket launches,” Rahman said. “A lot more is going on than what we are aware of in the public.”