From heaven to earth. Russia’s departure from the ISS is the beginning of the end of the domestic manned cosmonautics

Brief background: Soyuz-Apollo and Mir

The history of the International Space Station dates back to the Apollo-Soyuz project, which was implemented by two competing superpowers: the US and the USSR. Then it was presented as a cosmic handshake that helps two rivals move towards peaceful coexistence. But after the legendary docking, there was no continuation due to new political differences, primarily due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The next stage of cooperation in space began already in the 90s, when the Americans decided to join the post-Soviet Mir space program. Then American shuttles flew to the Russian station, and American and European astronauts began to work at the station itself. For the United States, this was not so much cooperation for the sake of cooperation as acquaintance with Russian experience in long-term space flights and the creation of long-term orbital stations. One of the tasks that the Americans solved by financing the Russian space program was national security. The United States was interested in Russian rocket specialists staying and working at home, and not helping to build rockets in third countries, not always friendly to the States.

By the end of the 1990s, it became clear that Mir had already exhausted its resource, and the Americans concentrated their attention on creating a new station. The International Space Station was born as a hybrid of the American project Freedom and the Soviet Mir-2. Completed in 2021, the Russian segment of the ISS technically continues the Soviet Mir program, and some structural elements, for example, the hull, fuel tanks and engines of the Nauka module, were generally produced in the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago.

Putin's zero

In the 2000s, Russian-American cooperation in cosmonautics developed extremely productively. Russian scientific instruments were installed on American interplanetary vehicles that studied the Moon and Mars, and Russian spacecraft practically saved the American manned cosmonautics after the accident of the Columbia shuttle.

At the end of the 2000s, NASA thought about more ambitious tasks with returning to the Moon and reaching Mars - the Constellation program appeared. And Roskosmos was seen as a reliable partner in this matter. For example, modules manufactured by RSC Energia were planned as part of a possible NASA circumlunar space station.

Then came 2014. The annexation of Crimea and the downing of a Boeing over the Donbass have seriously shaken the prospects for joint space exploration. The US imposed sanctions against Russia and banned the supply of important electronics.

At the same time, the sanctions passed through the Pentagon and the State Department and were not directly related to NASA projects. Sanctions did not include projects in which the United States depended on Russia - the ISS and RD-180 rocket engines. They wanted to immediately abandon the engines, but at that time the launches of the Pentagon and NASA depended on supplies, so sanctions were introduced, but they were delayed until 2023. The ISS, on the other hand, remained untouched, because then American astronauts flew to the station only on Russian ships. In 2011, the US ended the shuttle program in the hope that emerging private companies would create cheaper and safer replacements. Until then, NASA decided to trust Roskosmos in delivering crews to the station.

In 2015, the American company Orbital Sciences ordered a batch of RD-181 engines from Russia, also needed to supply the ISS, and the new contract met with no objections from US politicians. Relations were marred only by scandalous events with a drilled spacecraft in 2018 and hints from Roscosmos representatives that the US astronaut was to blame. The emergency situations with the Science module also did not increase confidence in the Russian side.

From the book by American astronaut Scott Kelly “Resilience. My year in space

About Gennady Padalka:
He is a born leader who can decisively give orders when needed and listen carefully if you have something to say. I trust him implicitly. Once in Moscow, near the Kremlin, I saw him separate from a group of cosmonauts to pay tribute to the place where an opposition politician was killed, possibly by close associates of Vladimir Putin. For an astronaut, a civil servant, this was a risky act. Other Russians in our company, it seemed to me, did not even want to talk about this murder, but not Gennady.

On cooperation in space:
Soyuz-FG is the granddaughter of the Soviet R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7 was created during the Cold War to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in America, and I can't forget my childhood perception that New York City and my hometown of West Orange in New Jersey would inevitably be among the first to be attacked and swept off the face of the earth by the Soviets. Today I'm standing with two Russians in their once-secret building, and we're going to trust each other with our lives as we fly into space on a former weapon of destruction. All of us - Gennady, Misha and I - were military personnel before being selected for space flight, and although this is never discussed, we know that we could be ordered to destroy each other. Now we are participating in the largest peace cooperation program in history. When people ask me if a space station is worth the money spent on it, I always point it out. Two former bitter enemies convert a weapon into a vehicle for research and development of science - how much does it cost? The warring countries turn their warriors into members of the same crew and friends for life - and how much is that? You can't value it in money, but, in my opinion, this circumstance pays off any costs for the project and even the mortal risk for us.

On relations with Russians:
People often ask me how we get along with the Russians, and they don't seem to believe me when I say, "No problem." People from our countries daily face cultural misunderstanding. Russian Americans at first glance seem naive and weak, Americans Russians - stone and aloof, but I realized that this is just an appearance. (I often recall the definition of a Russian character that I read once: “the brotherhood of the dispossessed.” It says that Russians are connected by a history full of wars and disasters. It seemed to me that this was from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, but I could not We try to recognize and respect each other's culture and agreed to carry out this huge complex project together, so we try to understand and see the best in each other.


February 24, 2022 has become an important milestone in relation to Russia from almost all countries. The United States and Europe began to impose sanctions that affected the Russian cosmonautics.

The Europeans reacted more emotionally. For example, an expensive and important project to launch a European rover with a Russian rocket, ExoMars, was frozen and then practically canceled.

In the United States, they reacted to the situation with more restraint, and although the White House imposed sanctions one by one, NASA continued to work with Roscosmos as if nothing had happened. However, Roskosmos itself, represented by its now former leader Dmitry Rogozin, launched its own "star war" against Europe and America and stopped deliveries of RD-181 engines to the United States. And RIA Novosti published a video about how Russian cosmonauts fly away from the ISS and the station falls without the support of Russian engines. The video was created with the participation of the press service of Roscosmos.

Dmitry Rogozin even tried to put forward an ultimatum to his partners in the ISS demanding that sanctions be lifted, but he was simply ignored.

Despite the deterioration of the foreign policy situation, cooperation on the ISS continued and does not stop today. The reason for this is simple - the US is still dependent on Russia to maintain the orbit and orientation of the station. Without Roskosmos, it will really fall, although American astronauts can already fly on their ships.

Of course, both cosmonauts and employees of rocket and space enterprises are not isolated from Russian society, and they also express their attitude towards the war. At the initiative of Dmitry Rogozin, rallies, fundraising for humanitarian aid to Donbass, and rocket launches with the letter “Z” were held at Roscosmos enterprises. The apotheosis was the deployment of the "LPR" and "DPR" flags on the Russian segment of the ISS in connection with the capture of Lisichansk by the Russian army.

The majority of cosmonauts, in principle, do not comment on the topic of war and their attitude towards it. The only polar public statements that can be found are a short interview by Gennady Padalka in Novaya Gazeta, where he supported veteran pilot Alexander Garnaev, who condemned the war against Ukraine. On the other hand, we can note the publication in social networks of Alexander Misurkin, who supported the president and the Russian army and wished the "special operation" to be completed as soon as possible. By that time, Padalka had already left the cosmonaut corps. Misurkin was in the detachment, but left it a few weeks after the statement supporting the war.

Active astronauts are extremely unfree people. They devoted themselves to serving the lofty dream of outer space, but on the way to it there are many obstacles, not only objective, but also subjective. So it turns out that they are silent, and this silence can be both for and against the war.

American astronaut Scott Kelly, who has already left the NASA astronaut corps, said that among Russian cosmonauts there are those who support the war and condemn it, but they did not publicly express this.

The cosmonauts who unfurled the flags of the "DPR" and "LPR" and welcomed the "liberation of the" LPR ", apparently did so on the orders of Roskosmos, but they themselves did not object - they had the opportunity to refuse. In response, NASA officially condemned the use of the station for political purposes and to support the war. Rogozin responded to this in his boorish style: “Either take off the cross or put on your underpants,” and recalled the sanctions.

In the American edition of The Hill, American astronaut Terry Verst, in his column in a tougher form, called for abandoning cooperation with Russia in space.

We cannot continue "business as usual" on the ISS while Russia uses it as a propaganda tool to support the murder of thousands of innocent Ukrainians and global economic ruin. Put in perspective, Putin has essentially taken Europe back to 1941. Would the Allies tolerate a joint Arctic research project (even with the best of intentions) with German scientists supporting the war?
The cost of our partnership with Russia on the ISS, unfortunately, is now much higher than the small remaining benefit. I sincerely hope that someday we will return to cooperation with post-Putin Russia, but now NASA and other partner countries must make a difficult decision and begin the process of divorce. The world is watching.

And the new head of Roskosmos, Yuri Borisov, practically fulfilled his wish by announcing Russia's withdrawal from the ISS. At the same time, shortly before that, Roscosmos and NASA signed an agreement on the so-called “cross flights to the ISS”, when American astronauts will fly on Russian ships, and Russian ones on American ones. That is, until 2024, cooperation in space continues, at least in the plans.

Where are we flying next?

At a meeting with the President, Yuri Borisov also described an alternative to the ISS - the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS). If we try to look into the future and imagine how realistic these plans are, we see two possible vectors. The first is positive, the second is negative.

The positive future of Russia's "sovereign cosmonautics" can be seen in the example of China. It has been under sanctions for a long time, and its space industry is developing independently, although it borrows ideas and know-how from where it can. China shows that the tactics of copying and creative rethinking is not only a profitable strategy in the race to the top, but also the basis for self-development. Now China has almost reached the ceiling in space, when there is nothing to repeat and you have to do something of your own. And he is already doing this both in near-Earth orbit and on the Moon.

The Chinese strategy has one difference that does not give Russia hope to follow the same path - this is the difference in the scale of the economy. The economy determines how much funding the state is able to allocate for its space ambitions. Thus, the financing of the Chinese space program is about three times higher than the Russian one, and the difference in the size of the economies is 10 times. It turns out that for China, space has a lower priority than for Russia, and there are more successes. Not only the size of the economy is important, but also its structure, for China it is a manufacturing one, for Russia it is a raw material one. This means that even with equal funding, Chinese manufacturers will give more to Chinese astronautics and at a lower price than Russian ones to Russian ones. This is not only about microelectronics, but also about materials and equipment.

Not only the size of the economy is important, but also its structure, China has a manufacturing one, Russia has a raw material one.

The likelihood that the Russian economy will show rapid growth in the coming years and that Russian space will receive an even higher priority from the state is extremely low, which means that the whole positive path seems unrealistic.

The negative scenario for the development of events is associated with the loss of competence to launch people into space. This can happen if the funding for Russian cosmonautics remains at the same level or decreases, which will “float” the timing of the launch of its own ROSS. Now the beginning of its construction in space is planned for 2028, which is impossible in Russian realities.

Even if the exit time from the ISS stretches from 2024 to 2028, the unavailability of the ROSS will lead to a pause in the flights of manned spacecraft. And this is very dangerous, since the cessation of production is fraught with the loss of competencies due to the leakage of personnel, changes in production chains and disruption of cooperation. This has happened twice in the United States, and both times it was associated with the creation of a completely new manned transport system. Without additional funding, Roskosmos simply will not be able to create a new one and will lose the old one.

However, the probability of a negative scenario is also not 100%, most likely there will be some kind of hybrid option. The importance of manned cosmonautics for propaganda purposes for the state is quite high, so Russia will most likely postpone its departure from the International Space Station until the last moment, and when this happens, it will launch ships into autonomous flights, even if its station is not ready.

American Daily Newspaper

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