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NASA needs to develop and share plans to keep the ISS operational even if Russia exits the partnership. (credit: NASA)

Act now on contingencies for Russian non-participation in ISS


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The International Space Station (ISS) has for decades been a pinnacle of human scientific, technological and political achievement. It remains the sole example of how an international team can productively and successfully cooperate over the course of decades in space.[1] Yet recent demands from Russia threaten the safety of ISS, people on Earth, and the cooperative mission objectives, including the transition to commercial space facility operations. This essay explores the importance of promptly responding to this concern and how NASA and other US agencies could mitigate risks. The two actions proposed here, which are not mutually exclusive, are:

  1. NASA creates a detailed plan describing the options to ensure survival of the ISS in the short term and cover all contingencies therein.
  2. NASA enhances progress toward replacing the ISS by providing non-monetary technical and NASA facility assistance to all US commercial space station providers while working with other government stakeholders to remove bureaucratic and regulatory encumbrances that could hamper the establishment of US commercial space habitat industry.

Importance of the ISS

The ISS has served as a partnership of nations performing research since 1998. It has elevated humanity’s sphere of influence into a new frontier and redefined what it means to be human. It has given us a foothold in space to begin expanding our commerce, culture, and civilization beyond the confines of Earth.

ISS research has provided invaluable insights on many critical human and technological domains. Just a few include fundamental disease research, advanced water purification systems, and the existence of commercial space markets. Furthermore, ISS successes have bolstered participating nations' credibility, influence, and leadership in the peaceful use of space worldwide.[2]

Any space station gap could jeopardize the strong network of international partnerships and enterprises that have been in place over the last two decades and could halt their continuing maturation.

After more than two decades of fundamental research and technology development there, the ISS has entered an evolved phase marked by practical utilization, commercial value creation, and global public and private partnerships. While the ISS will not last forever, NASA has performed life extension analyses indicating the ISS can operate safely through 2030.[1] It is in the interest of the United States, and an opportunity for other free spacefaring nations, to create a smooth and seamless transition from the ISS to new commercial space stations. Per the US Space Priorities Framework,[2] our vision is also to continue human presence in low Earth orbit, leading toward expansion of free world enterprises. Our continued presence in space will create a growing expansion of the global economy that allows a space civilization where everyday people live, work, and thrive safely in space.

A critical step toward creation of this new earth-space econosphere is a gapless transition to commercial space stations. This transition must ensure that the US government and its current international ISS partners retain a seamless ability to continue using low Earth orbit platforms for space frontier research and expansion. Any gap could jeopardize the strong network of international partnerships and enterprises that have been in place over the last two decades and could halt their continuing maturation.[1]

The Russian threat

It is recognized that Russia has been a significant ISS partner working with the United States and other partner nations in developing and operating the ISS. But Roscosmos has completed its extension analyses only through 2024.[1] With recent political shifts it appears that no clarity on Russia’s ability to support ISS extension until 2030 will be forthcoming. This puts ISS operations, the US transition, and other partners’ plans in jeopardy. Further, over the last year, the Russian government and the head of the Russian space program have time and again threatened to unilaterally withdraw from the ISS.[3] Although in direct violation of their original partner agreements, Russia feels they can do this because their Progress transport modules currently provide the only means to keep the 500-ton station from crashing back to Earth anywhere between 52° north latitude and 52° south latitude.

To further complicate the state of these matters, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis this year saw the essential dissolution of the ISS partnership with Russia. On February 24, 2022, Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, threatened to prematurely abandon the International Space Station to die in an early, uncontrolled reentry.[4]. Such threats put in jeopardy the safety and livelihood of people in the countries under the ISS trajectory. A disaster of such an early and uncontrolled reentry also places NASA and other commercial space companies at the risk of losing the hard earned public, economic, and government headway toward future space exploration and commercial endeavors.

These withdrawal threats and Russian behavior provide clear indicators that it isn’t whether Russia will exit the ISS, but rather when. The United States and allied partner countries need to be ready to safeguard their people, interests, and the ISS itself from such a contingency. Ignoring or minimizing these facts will not make them go away.

More importantly, Russian actions show that we do not have the luxury of waiting to create responses and begin to transition the ISS to commercial partners.[1] The United States must act now to ensure that clear and actionable contingencies exist to ensure the safety of ISS operations through the transition period. Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer and adviser to the National Space Council, has even recommended in a recent article[5] that Russian participation in the joint operation of the ISS should be reviewed by the National Space Council and with our international partners to determine whether Russia should continue to contribute to ISS operations.

Required actions

In response to these recent events and growing commercial space habitat market interest, two vital actions are needed from the United States government.

Can space still hold the future for human expansion when faced with recent threats and hostility from Russia? Yes, if we move away from relying on the Russians and take needed actions to rely on ourselves and our trusted partners

First, the administration should direct NASA to create a detailed review in the next 90 days that describes options for assuring the survival of ISS through the 2030 transition to commercial space facilities that shows the public all contingencies are covered. This contingency review needs to include plans that address technical options, space-environmental impacts, operational/logistical requirements, political and international cooperation considerations, and budgetary costs. It must include thoughtful considerations for safely operating through 2030 and decommissioning the ISS at the end of its life. A key part of this review is having NASA specify the technical requirements that allow industry to rapidly replace all the essential ISS functions provided by the Russian modules. It should study capabilities such as the creation of special docking adapters, procedures for exploiting deboost/reboost units like the Dragon, Cygnus, or other non-Russian propulsion systems. The review should also consider transition and decommissioning option reviews. These include the selective salvaging of still-useful ISS components (both government and commercial) and procedures for disassembly or deconstructing individual modules to provide greater disposal control and safety. Most importantly, contingencies need to be addressed and documented with a standard of quality and detail that citizens expect from NASA.

Once this ISS contingency review is completed, authorities such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) should evaluate its adequacy and quality, and identify which plans and methods should be published for a 90-day public view and comment. Consequently, this allows other entities such as the administration, Congress, industry, and the public to confidently engage in prudent decisions regarding the plans and their scope and roles in supporting plan execution.

Second, the administration should support and direct NASA to aggressively coordinate with other agencies to remove bureaucratic barriers which could hamper new commercial space facility progress toward replacing the ISS with commercial space stations as stated in the ISS Transition Report.[1] The key objective of these actions is having NASA clearly specify their minimum service requirements. This will allow all industry players and stakeholders to be in a position to confidently create space facility market capabilities for NASA and also that are attractive for commercial customers. Working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and congressional committees, the administration can work to fast-track the authorization of necessary and sufficient budgets to mitigate Russian threats while catalyzing commercial investments for a continuing commercial space facilities market.

The fundamental question is, can space still hold the future for human expansion when faced with recent threats and hostility from Russia? Yes, if we move away from relying on the Russians and take needed actions to rely on ourselves and our trusted partners. This can be done by addressing the contingencies quickly and charting a clear ISS transition course of action by fully supporting the commercial space station entrants. Frank collaboration with our international partners safeguarding the ISS through transition and decommissioning is also required.

The threat of early termination of the ISS is a crisis and we must treat it as such. Future generations will hold us accountable in our responses to this challenge of transitioning to a prosperous space frontier. As John F. Kennedy said, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind.” It is imperative that we act now to mitigate all possibilities of Russian non-participation in the ISS.

References

  1. NASA, “International Space Station Transition Report”, January 2022.
  2. White House, “United States Space Priorities Franework”, December 2021.
  3. CNBC, “Russia’s space chief threatens to leave International Space Station program unless U.S. lifts sanctions”, June 7, 2021.
  4. The Space Review, “The ending of an era in international space cooperation”, February 28, 2022.
  5. Washington Post, “Our space partnership with Russia can’t go on”, March 9, 2022.

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