ISS journey coming to an end

For all these years, ISS has been the torchbearer of the most successful diplomatic effort in the post-Cold war era, to bring the yesteryear rivals, the US and Russia together.

ISS journey coming to an end
The bag was discarded by the station's commercial cargo ship and will burn up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere

By Dr AjeyLele

The International Space Station (ISS) is not only about science, but there is much more to it. It is about man’s long-term vision for space, the physical ability to survive in space, encouraging and motivating the younger generations to look at space both as a science and an adventure. However, more importantly ISS is about the demonstration of a reality that the domain of space does not hold the malice of terrestrial confrontations. It is an area for orbital cooperation. For all these years, ISS has been the torchbearer of the most successful diplomatic effort in the post-Cold war era, to bring the yesteryear rivals, the US and Russia together.

After the end of the Cold War, space exploration moved in the direction of cooperative efforts and the ISS is a good example of that. The International Space Station is presently the largest artificial body in orbit and its assembly began in November 1998. The ISS is a multinational effort with participation of space agencies like NASA, along with the states like Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) on-board. In operational terms, the ISS was intended to be a laboratory, permanent observatory and a transportation node in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), say around 350 to 400 km above the earth’s surface.  It was also intended to provide servicing and maintenance capability for payloads and vehicles, a storage depot and a staging base for possible future missions to the Moon, Mars, planetary probes and asteroid surveys. The ISS has been the most politically complex space exploration programme ever undertaken.

Recently, Russia has made an announcement that they will leave the ISS after 2024. In fact, immediately after invading Ukraine, Russia had taken a very hawkish position on the ISS. They were very upset because of the sanctions put on them by the Americans. On February 24, 2022, the head of Russia’s space agency, the Roscosmos Director-General Mr Dimitry Rogozin (who stands removed now) had warned that new sanctions imposed on his country could have dire consequences for the ISS programme and the ISS could come crashing to Earth in an uncontrolled fashion. But, subsequently, Russia was seen behaving in a normal fashion and is helping the US and others to continue with the routine activities.Now, Moscow is keen to focus its resources on building its own space facility and has suddenly decided to withdraw from ISS. 

The ISS was expected to function until 2030; and now the Americans are putting a brave face and saying that they would find an alternative to the Russian propulsion systems that keeps the ISS oriented correctly. However, it is easier said than done. Also, it is important to note that the Russian section of the ISS hosts one of the only two toilets on this giant space station. For the astronauts to survive in space, such basic facilities are extremely important.

Actually, after 2014, there has been a major downtrend in the relationship between US and Russia owing to the Crimean crisis. The relations further plunged in July 2014, when Malaysian Airline flight was brought down by a suspected surface-to-air missile in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. Still the ISS bonding continued. Post 2010, after retiring the Space Shuttle programme, the Americans were totally dependent on the Soyuz craft for a to-and-fro journey to the ISS. Now, since the private agency, Space X is helping the Americans to reach the ISS, the burden on Soyuz is somewhat reduced. But, the latest announcement indicates that the Russians are looking for a ‘decent’ and planned withdrawal from the project ISS.

In the space domain, Russia is just not interested in collaborating with its adversaries. Owing to the Ukraine crisis, Russia has decided to cut their ties not only from the Americans, but also from the European Union (EU). They have already withdrawn from some important joint programmes in the domain of space.  It appears that owing all this disharmony in space amongst the Americans, Russia and EU the ultimate winner could be China.

For the last few decades, China has been found going almost solo in various domains of space. They have achieved success in various domains of space, from human space missions to missions to Moon and Mars and also successful launching of satellites like the Quantum satellites. After conducting a pilot project for their own space station, now they are in a process to complete the building of their own space station. They are expected to fully operationalise their space station called Tiangong by the end of 2022. Their astronauts (Taikonauts) have already started staying in one portion of this space station and are working towards finishing the remaining one third of the job. Now, if the Americans are not able to manage to save the ISS in time, a day would come when we would have only Chinese people living in outer space and that could be a major achievement for China, both from technology and from a strategic perspective. 

The author is the consultant with MP-IDSA, New Delhi

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