Russia announced plans Tuesday evening to continue operating the International Space Station until 2024 — but afterwards, it will take its modules away to form its own space station.
The ISS, which was assembled in orbit between 1998 and 2011, is made up mainly of modules owned by NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency), along with some owned by Japan and Europe. Original plans called for it to be retired by 2020, but in January 2014, President Obama announced plans to extend its mission to 2024, and possibly to 2028.
That, however, depended on Russia’s cooperation, because under the station’s current configuration, modules from both countries are needed to operate it. Last May, due to tensions from economic sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine, Russia threatened to pull out of the project in 2020.
The new announcement ensures that ISS will live on until 2024 — but puts the future of US-Russia cooperation in space in doubt.
Since 1975, when the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecrafts linked up in orbit, the US and Russia have worked together in space. And recently, as political tensions between the two countries have grown, space has remained one of few areas of cooperation.
If Russia goes through with this plan, though, the era of space cooperation might be over. NASA currently relies on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the ISS, but by 2017, it’s hoping that private American companies (SpaceX and Boeing) will be able to carry out these missions instead. Russia, meanwhile, says it plans to use several of its ISS modules to assemble its own, new space station, possibly as a precursor for human missions to the moon. NASA’s longer-term plans for crewed exploration are uncertain, but no proposals involve collaboration with Russia.
The good news is that in the short term, the complex, expensive ISS will continue to be used for research (helping scientists figure out, for instance, how to keep humans healthy in space) instead of being thrown away prematurely for political reasons. But the bad news for space exploration as a whole is that the world’s two most capable space programs might soon be competing with each other, instead of working together.