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Russia's bluster over International Space Station

Astronauts work to install the alpha magnetic spectrometer on the International Space Station on May 26, 2011.
Astronauts work to install the alpha magnetic spectrometer on the International Space Station on May 26, 2011.

Recently, Russia insinuated that it was planning on leaving the International Space Station after 2024. NASA and Roscosmos have worked together since its inception to keep the station in orbit since the first ISS component was launched in 1998, despite whatever political climate exists. The Russians have walked back this threat somewhat, but it leaves the question, what happens if they decide to abandon the ISS?

Chris Combs is a Dee Howard faculty fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an expert on ISS operations.

He spoke to TPR’s Jerry Clayton about the Russian’s threat to leave the ISS. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Clayton: Now, first of all, do you believe the Russians?

Combs: No, I don't. I don't believe what they're saying. This is a threat that they've been making for a while now. It always felt empty. It always felt pretty hollow because, first of all, from a logistical standpoint, it doesn't make sense because Russian and U.S. components of the ISS are codependent. So it is kind of a beautifully dependent network of pieces. But with those pieces, you can't just pull out of the agreement honestly, without taking out the whole space station. I don't believe that Russia has any intent to do that. Business as usual is kind of how things are going.

And you hear most of the people at NASA say they never got any sort of official notification from Russia about this. So it really did just feel like it was just a quote to kind of get some headlines. And then the other funny thing is, they initially came out, said, well, it's 2024, we are going to pull out. That's what got people's attention because people off guard. But then in less than a day, they had walked that back and said, oh, well, you know, maybe by 2028, at the earliest.

But then you take that into the context of the fact that, as a had earlier this year announced their plans to de-orbit ISS decommissioned 2030. We already know that there were going to be new space station concepts coming online. So if Russia saying, well, by 2028 maybe, or whenever our new space station is ready, that's not really much of a statement that changes anything.

Soyuz MS-19 and Progress 78 docked to the ISS. Soyuz spacecraft provide thrust to keep ISS in proper orbit
Soyuz MS-19 and Progress 78 docked to the ISS. Soyuz spacecraft provide thrust to keep ISS in proper orbit

Clayton: Can Russia go it alone and put up their own space station? Do they even have the capability, in your opinion?

Combs: Yeah, I think that they can. I mean, one thing that I think people sometimes discount Russia's ability to develop technology, particularly when it comes to rocketry and space. I mean, this is something they've been doing for just as long as we have. So Russia's definitely capable. But that doesn't mean it won't be a challenging thing, but if they put the resources into it, it's not like they've really developed anything new that would be technology they haven't proven already in some respects.

So yeah, I think that Russia would be capable of putting a space station in orbit on their own. Whether they prioritize that or not, I'm not sure. But they've got Soyuz launch capability. We've got a crew swap that was honestly just recently agreed to, where they're going to have a couple of the astronauts that the US takes up to the space station and we're going to have a couple that go up on Soyuz.

So, Russia's very capable in the space sector but just like I was at the time of the NASA's announcement about decommission the ISS, I was a little bit critical of NASA's, because building a new space station takes a long time and a lot of money and a lot of effort. And that doesn't just happen overnight. And I would have the same expectation with anything. Russia is going to design. I think that they're capable of it. I think they have the technology, but it going to take a long time.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.