In response to sanctions imposed by the west, the director of Roscosmos has regularly played out loud on social media in recent weeks with the idea of ​​dropping the ISS (literally and figuratively). boast? Or a real threat?

Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions-accompanied outrage from other countries have cooled love between Russia and the West. And the consequences are felt not only here on Earth, but also in space. For example, the war in Ukraine has forced the European space agency to postpone the launch of its Mars rover – which would be launched together with a Russian lander on a Russian launch vehicle. Meanwhile, in response to the sanctions imposed, Russia decided to immediately withdraw from the European launch center at Kourou in French Guiana, so that Europe no longer has to rely on the Russian Soyuz missiles for the launch of, for example, its navigation satellite constellation Galileo. And the tensions are also being felt in the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 400 kilometers. For example, the Russian space agency already announced that experiments that would take place in collaboration with Germany in the Russian segment of the ISS, will now only be carried out by the Russians – and therefore no longer in collaboration with the Germans.


But it is not only cooperation within the International Space Station that is under pressure. The space station itself is also the subject of discussion in a number of Russian twitter messages that at first glance leave little to the imagination. For example, Dmitry Rogozin, director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has repeatedly threatened on Twitter to pull the hands off the ISS. Something he said would be guaranteed to result in an uncontrolled crash of the space station.

“At the height where the ISS is located – about 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface – you still have a little bit of frictional resistance through the Earth’s atmosphere,” he explains. Nancy Vermeulenastronomer, founder of the Space Training Academy (with which she prepares private astronauts for their space journey) and author of the recently published book ‘Everyone spaceman‘, from. “And because of that frictional drag, the ISS needs an occasional boost to overcome that drag and keep orbiting the Earth.” That extra bit of energy is currently provided with some regularity by Russian spaceships docked to the ISS. Without that push, the Russians reason, the ISS would have plunged towards Earth long ago. And so, in the future, a Russian withdrawal from the ISS could have catastrophic consequences for both the space station and the unfortunate area in which it would crash. “If you stop working with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled crash in the US or Europe?” Rogozin tweeted recently in response to US sanctions. “And then there is also the option of dropping the 500-tonne structure in India or China. Do you want them to be threatened by such a prospect?”

Firm language. But are we really at the mercy of the Russians when it comes to keeping the ISS afloat? Vermeulen can reassure us somewhat. “Probably SpaceX with their Dragon and Crew Dragon will also be able to give a boost to the ISS if necessary. So in that regard, America has a backup-plan.” Rogozin now knows that too. Because when he wondered aloud in the Twitter rant from which we just quoted above who could save the world from a hard crash of the ISS, SpaceX boss Elon Musk simply answered with an image of the SpaceX logo.

Threats untapped

Whether SpaceX will actually have to be called upon to keep the ISS in space in the short term is another matter. Because Rogozin threatens to let go of the ISS, but could the Russians ever really do that? “It really won’t go that fast,” thinks Vermeulen. She points out that it is certainly not the first time that Rogozin has made unmistakable threats on Twitter. For example, in 2014 – when tensions were already rising due to the Russian annexation of Crimea – Rogozin also threatened that the Russians would stop transporting American astronauts to the ISS. “Just use a trampoline to get to the ISS,” Rogozin told the Americans at the time,” says Vermeulen. “A crucial threat, because at that time the Russian Soyuz was really the only means of transport to the ISS.” But the threat – like many other threats the Roscosmos boss spat on Twitter – was never met.


In addition, according to Vermeulen, we should not underestimate how intertwined the cooperation partners within the ISS – in addition to the US and Russia, this also concerns the European space agency ESA, Canada and Japan – with each other. And that entanglement makes it almost impossible for one of the partners to leave the project unilaterally. “It is a very complicated collaboration,” says Vermeulen. “For example, the space station has different modules.” Most of them were built either by the US or by Russia, but ESA, Japan and some space companies also own some of the modules that make up the ISS. “And those modules are all linked together.” Just getting out of the partnership and packing all your stuff is therefore not an option.

No extension for the ISS?

So we need not immediately fear an uncontrolled crash of the ISS. And the Russians can’t just wriggle out of the ISS just like that. However, it is highly questionable whether, given the situation, the Russians will be prepared to extend the cooperation within the ISS that will soon expire. “The current partnership runs until 2024. America has proposed to extend the partnership until 2030. And Europe certainly agrees. Only Russia does not agree. Russia is thinking of building its own space station to become independent.” Of course, the US and Europe are not sitting still either. “They are thinking of commercial space stations. For example, Axiom Space – like three other space companies – has already received funding from NASA to develop space stations in low Earth orbit. So in the future, at least in America, space stations will no longer be paid for by government agencies, but by private companies. But that transition will take several years. That is why America is really inclined to keep the ISS functioning until 2030.” But Russia saw little in this before the invasion of Ukraine and will certainly no longer be so eager to do so. Ten years ago, that would have been a disaster. But now it is not inconceivable that the other cooperation partners – aided by space companies and perhaps also new governmental partners – can keep the ISS running in the absence of Russia, experts stated in Newsweek earlier this week

Changed dynamics

What the future of the ISS will look like exactly remains to be seen. But it is clear to Vermeulen that the dynamics in the space are changing. “You can already see that China and Russia are working very closely together to create a lunar base on the south pole of the moon. At the same time, NASA is working on the Artemis project – also targeting the moon – and Europe and many other countries have joined it. So you already see a split emerging. And I think that split will continue to accelerate. Meanwhile, India and the United Arab Emirates also have a strongly emerging space industry. So the space landscape is definitely changing.” And that is not directly in favor of us Europeans. “Europe will not benefit from this,” Vermeulen thinks. “Because in terms of space travel – and especially manned space travel – Europe works very closely with Russia. Europe will now work more closely with NASA, but will also have to ensure that it is strategically stronger. For example, ESA is now finally discussing developing its own launch systems to be able to launch astronauts independently from European soil.”

While space organizations joined forces more in the decades after the space race, the cards now seem to be shuffled again. Partnerships are being overhauled and make way for new ones. And the war in Ukraine threatens to accelerate all that. It is a situation that only has losers, Vermeulen emphasizes. “Where science and space travel should transcend borders and literally transcend conflicts on Earth, that is no longer the case.”