By Kashif Anwar
The development of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project began an era of cooperation between the US and USSR, later with Russia. During the Cold War, the USA and USSR were engaged in a neck-to-neck competition to establish supremacy over each other, including the space domain. The launch of the International Space Station (ISS) on November 20, 1998, a collaboration of five space agencies and 15 countries, made science fiction a reality. With a strong US-Russia relationship in the space domain, the US ended its 30 year old Space Shuttle program on August 31, 2011, allowing the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft to take astronauts to the ISS along with modules and cargo. The US-Russia collaboration in space for a long remained unaffected by geopolitics and ensured space militarisation was checked.
Russia-US ISS Cooperation and the 2024 Window
For a long, the ISS remained distant fromglobal geopolitics and wasprojected as the feat of global cooperation in space to benefit the human race.In 2021, the White House approved and extended the life of the ISS from 2024 to 2030, which all the ISS partners approved except Russia. Yuriy Borisov, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos Chief, stated the Roscosmos will stop cooperating with NASA after 2024,ending a long history of cooperation between Russia and the US in space.On the issue, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson argues in spite of current development he want the ISS to operate beyond 2030 enhance its capabilities to assure their major presence in the LEO.
The ISS being a joint project, it allows astronauts from other space aspiring countries to board the ISS and conduct experiments in space with ISS, a combination of two space stations, namely the Russian Segment and the American Module. On the other hand, the appointment of Borisov as Roscosmos Chief in place of Dmitry Rogozin is because his inefficiency especially in regards to deployment of drone and was visible during the Ukraine War.The ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict has impacted the US-Russia relationship, with Europe bracing for an energy crisis, Russia under heavy economic sanction, andnow US-Russia geopolitics impacting the ISS.
In recent years, space became a new domain of power politics among major powers and was seen from a military and strategic perspective. China is currently working to establish the Tiangong space station, which intensifies the space race between the US and China. On the other hand, Russia’s DA-ASAT Missile Test on November 15, 2021, a response to the US’s Space Force and Space Command, created space debris in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO); such developments established two space rivals for the US to address in the coming years.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict and a series of sanctions imposed against Russia by the West politicised the ISS. In July, three Russian cosmonauts showed the flags of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic at the ISS, prompting strong reactions from NASA and the European Space Agency. Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency who argues the ISS being a symbol of peace and inspiration meant to conduct research and prepare us for deeper exploration has instead become a platform to play out political or humanitarian crises going on the ground.
On the other hand, recently, we have seen tremendous growth private players like SpaceX in Space exploration have achieved and become dominant private players in the world. In the current situation and Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS in 2024, SpaceX’s Crew-5 Crew Mission and other such missions and its cost efficiency will allow to move NASA astronauts to and from the ISS and reduce their dependence on Russian Soyuz Spacecraft eventually.
On July 15, 2022, Russia and the US signed an agreement allowing them to use each other spacecraft to send their astronauts to the ISS, which begins with SpaceX’s Crew-5 Crew Mission in September. With Russia ending its ISS cooperation in 2024, the growth of private players in the US for space exploration and race between SpaceX, Blue Origin and others will come in handy for the US even after 2030.As the decision to withdraw from collaborating with the Americans to operate the ISS was conveyed to Russian President Putin, it also ended the last area of cooperation between the US and Russia.
The US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby arguesBorisov’s statement pushed the US to explore options. On the other hand, the US State Department Ned Price sees Borisov’s statement as an unfortunate development. For a long time, Russia has raised questions regarding the ISS’s age as they argue it has only compromised safety measures and is hoping to build its space station. The rise of SpaceX hasn’t only undercut money Russia made by flying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS; western sanction, on the other hand, has impacted the Russian space industry. Thus, Borisov’s statement could be a part of Russian manoeuvring to bring the West to the table to win some relief in return for an extension of the station’s operation.
In recent years, Russia didn’t make any advancements to develop its space station, and now, due to the Western sanction, it has become difficult for Russia to build the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS). Meanwhile, such withdrawal wasn’t officially notified to NASA, reflecting Russia hasn’t ended the ISS cooperation. Robyn Gaten, the ISS Director to NASA Headquarter, argues Yuriy Borisov’s statement reflects even Russia having a similar US plan and thinking beyond 2030, as the US wants to develop a commercial owned and operated space station after 2030.
With Russia’s ROSS proposed and China’s Tiangong space station being constructed, it shifts global power politics between the US and Russia and China into space. It’s plausible that it will only divide outer space instead, needed for the advancement of the human race will be used to gain superiority and advance its military capabilities, in short, space militarisation. With new private players entering, it brought down the total cost of space exploration, launching satellites and sending astronauts to the ISS. The US should see Borisov’s statement as an opportunity to ensure the West’s lead in the space domain is secure to protect their interest on the ground and in space.
(Author is Research Associate, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).