8 years ago, the U.S. and Russia played chicken with the ISS — will history repeat itself?
“delivering their astronauts on the ISS using a trampoline”
This is the scenario that has played out in recent weeks, borne on the back of veiled threats made by Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, about a sudden ISS “deorbit.” But this situation actually played out before — almost eight years ago to the day, in April 2014.
Cast your memory back: Russia had just invaded Ukraine and annexed the region of Crimea, an event that foreshadowed the ongoing conflict. With the 20-20 vision of hindsight, the 2014 diplomatic spat over the ISS also provides a blueprint for understanding the current clash over the space station — and how this fresh fight may ultimately pan out.
On February 24, Roscosmos boss Rogozin tweeted an implicit threat to the International Space Station. The ISS is a space science lab run by the U.S., Russia, and the European Union, as well as other partner countries. It hosts both Russian cosmonauts and American and European astronauts as they conduct science experiments in orbit around Earth.
“The correction of the station’s orbit, its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage ... is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships. If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit?” Rogozin asks amid a longer thread.
While an uncontrolled deorbit — essentially the ISS falling out of the sky without warning or steerage — is extremely unlikely, the threat underscores the fact that the ISS is a “joint project” — both figuratively and literally. The space station is made up of two main sections, the United States Orbital Segment and the Russian Orbital Segment. These segments depend intimately on each other to remain as one in space.
The segments are “not just docked together,” explains Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the non-profit Secure World Foundation.
“They are fundamentally linked together.”
The U.S. section provides power to the whole station, for example, while the Russian segment provides periodic orbital boosts to counteract the space station’s gradual drift toward Earth. This happens as the result of atmospheric drag that slows it down.
As Rogozin notes, this relationship is perhaps a little awkward right now.
“Using a trampoline”
The explicitly collaborative nature of the ISS both insulates it from global politics and makes it especially vulnerable to the geopolitical storms happening far below its orbit. During the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, perhaps the first foray of the current invasion of Ukraine, the ISS almost became a geopolitical pawn.
Crimea is a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea that officially became part of Ukraine after the fall of the Society Union in 1991. In 2014, Russia invaded the territory and took over much of Crimea. The invasion followed a period of great turmoil within Ukraine, which saw widespread protests that eventually ousted the country’s then-president. The tumultuous period led to violent clashes between Ukrainians who supported Russia and those who opposed it. Even after Crimea was annexed in March of 2014, local conflict simmered in eastern Ukraine as Russian troops fought the Ukrainian army.
At the time, the international community condemned Russia’s actions, and the country was hit with a hefty set of sanctions designed to hurt its economy. NASA, for its part, cut off most contact with Russia in April of 2014.
In April 2014, Space Policy Online reported that NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden sent an email to some staff saying:
“Given Russia¹s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted.”
One exception? The ISS. Since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, U.S. astronauts have relied primarily on hitching a ride on Russian Soyuz rockets to space. Those flights, which cost about $70 million per passenger, meant Russia was our only way to and back from the space station. That put NASA in a delicate position.
“The U.S. was reliant on Russia, we couldn’t do anything,” Weeden says. “I think that was part of why we didn't want to disrupt that relationship too much.”
Rogozin, who was head of Roscosmos at the time, did not let the opportunity to poke fun at his NASA frenemies pass by. He used the escalating tensions to threaten to cut NASA off from Soyuz launches completely. If the Americans really wanted to get to space, he suggested in a Tweet, perhaps they could think about using a giant trampoline.
Then in September of 2014, Russia intimated it might move its cosmonaut training facilities to Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city.
“Sevastopol may soon become a space training center again. Cosmonauts’ training sessions will, possibly, resume in the water area of the main base of the Black Sea Fleet,” a Roscosmos press service official says in a press release at the time.
This threat had more teeth: It would have effectively prevented U.S. astronauts from traveling to space. Russia requires all passengers aboard its rockets to complete basic training and because it owned the rockets it got to say where that training happened. In the years leading up to 2014, the training had taken place in Zvyozdny Gorodok, or “Star City,” outside Moscow. Sevastopol, located in what was until very recently part of Ukraine, presented a diplomatic quandary, explains James Black, the European lead for the RAND corporation’s space enterprise initiative.
“For the U.S. and others in the international community, [Crimea] was illegally seized and annexed Ukrainian territory,” Black tells Inverse. “So they couldn't be seen to be implicitly endorsing it as Russian territory by allowing their nationals to go on training assignments in Crimea.”
Thankfully, Russia never made good on its threats to cut the U.S. off from launches, and the country did not officially move cosmonaut training to Crimea. Four crewed missions launched to the ISS aboard Russian rockets in 2014, each of which carried an American aboard.
It’s unclear exactly why Russia didn’t cut the U.S off from the ISS back in 2014. But given the tightly interwoven nature of the international partnership, doing so could have threatened the space station itself. The ISS is extremely expensive to maintain, and both nations depend upon the other for money, as well as for technical expertise. Let’s not forget that the U.S. paid Russia hundreds of millions of dollars every year for rides to space.
Space, for better or worse, has always served as a place for nations to burnish their self-image. Russia’s involvement with the ISS is a point of pride for the country.
“Space is an area it can still demonstrate that it’s one of the biggest players and command a certain respect,” Black says.
That’s as true today as it was in 2014. Despite the ongoing threats, and Rogozin’s bellicosity, it’s unlikely the ISS is in any real danger, Weeden says.
“For all of the public blustering from Rogozin in the last few days, the ISS is the crown jewel of the Russian space program.”
What’s next for the ISS?
The true significance of the Ukraine crisis for the ISS and for space in general remains to be seen. But the ISS may be the last large-scale cooperative project between Russia and the West. Their current operating agreement ends in 2024.
NASA’s biggest priority for the coming decades is the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon, a project that features partnerships with commercial space companies, but no ties to Russia. The next space station to go to orbit may well be commercial as well. Meanwhile, Russia has no solid plans for a successor to the ISS, though the country is reportedly exploring possible space-based collaborations with China.
Today, the U.S. is able to rely on private companies like SpaceX for rocket trips to the ISS, removing one of Russia’s key points of leverage (and a lot of revenue). Even Russia’s threat to deorbit the ISS may not remain salient for long. Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft, which docked to the ISS on February 21, is scheduled to test its ability to boost the ISS’ orbit, a responsibility that previously rested with the Russians.
As space grows ever more commercially lucrative and interwoven into our daily lives, the threats to satellites and other space-based infrastructure are likely to grow as well. Cybersecurity experts have recently warned of the potentially devastating impacts of hacked satellites, and Rogozin has already labeled cyberattacks against Russian satellites as potential grounds for war.
Russia itself recently blew up one of its one satellites in orbit with a missile, a move that drew condemnation from around the world and forced its own cosmonauts to take shelter on the ISS. It’s hard not to see that test as a knowing precursor to the invasion of Ukraine, Black says.
Aboard the ISS, the spirit of international collaboration may live on. But the space station may represent a nostalgic and ultimately fallible trust in the power of good-faith cooperation. Only time will tell.