After the announcement of the Russian withdrawal, what future for the International Space Station?

No break-in period for Yuri Borissov, the brand new director of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Tuesday, July 26, only eleven days after his appointment to this post, his first official intervention had the effect of a small bomb: during an interview with Vladimir Putin, he announced that Russia would withdraw of the International Space Station (ISS) “after 2024”. Following this declaration, NASA which, alongside the European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies, co-manages the ISS with Roscosmos, indicated that it had no official confirmation of this future Russian withdrawal. “We will undoubtedly fulfill all our obligations towards our partners” of the ISS, assured Yuri Borissov, “but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been taken”.

This choice may, a priori, be surprising because if the ISS, whose construction began in 1998, is aging, the idea that has predominated lately consisted rather in negotiating its maintenance at 400 kilometers above our heads until in 2030 and to deorbit it the following year. Nevertheless, for Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, research director at the CNRS and specialist in space policies, the announcement of this withdrawal “Isn’t news that shocks the world, because the Russians have been saying for a long time that they want to leave the ISS after 2024”. Same assessment for Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research: “We can probably not speak of surprise. The ISS is an object that has entered its final phase. We can clearly see that everyone is moving on, especially the Americans with their Artemis lunar program. »

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The current context, with the war in Ukraine and the banishment of Moscow that it has brought about, is undoubtedly not unrelated to the timing chosen to make this announcement. “It was said that the ISS was one of the last places where Russians and Americans could still talk to each other, but the current situation ended up creating tension in the station”, believes Xavier Pasco. At the beginning of July, NASA did not appreciate seeing its three Russian occupants, Oleg Artemiev, Denis Matveïev and Sergei Korsakov, unfurl the flags of the “self-proclaimed republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. The beautiful idea of ​​an orbital station sheltered from earthly political turmoil has undoubtedly had its day.

Motivations less linked to immediate news also shed light on this announcement. “Since, with SpaceX, the Americans became autonomous again to send their crews to the ISS and no longer need to borrow Soyuz spacecraft, the Russians have lost the money that these services brought them, analysis Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. Their contribution to the station will therefore cost them more. And in terms of political image, Russia has no interest in devoting part of its space budget, which is already modest, to the ISS. »

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