The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its western allies could have serious repercussion for future space cooperation and even herald an early and catastrophic end to the International Space Station (ISS).
Amidst heightened global tensions, unofficial comments from the head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, even implied that sanctions could lead to the ISS “falling out of the sky”.
There are currently four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut living and working onboard the orbiting outpost, the construction of which was first started in 1998 and is often held up as a beacon of international cooperation.
The ISS, which is a collaboration among the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, is divided into two main sections - a Russian orbital segment and a US orbital segment.
Speaking yesterday (Thursday) US President Joe Biden said the new sanctions would “degrade their [Russia's] aerospace industry, including their space programme”, leading Rogozin to respond by saying say they [the sanctions] had the potential to “destroy our cooperation" on the Space Station.
Rogozin used the social media platform Twitter to state that the Space Station’s orbit and location in space are controlled by Russian engines. "If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit?” he asked.
In a more measured statement, NASA said it "continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station”.
A spokesman added that the new US “export control measures” would continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation and no changes were planned to the agency's support for ongoing in-orbit and ground station operations.
Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman was more forthright in an interview with CNN, saying: “The Russian segment can't function without the electricity on the American side and the American side can't function without the propulsion systems that are on the Russian side. So you can't do an amicable divorce. You can't do a conscious uncoupling."
Despite the UK having no significant role in the fabric of the International Space Station, apart from through its membership of ESA, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, renowned for his off the cuff comments, also waded into the debate at the end of the week.
Speaking to the floor of the House of Commons on he explicitly questioned the future of the Space Station. “I've been broadly in favour of continuing artistic and scientific collaboration but, in the current circumstances, it's hard to see how even those can continue as normal.”
David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, believes NASA's statements suggest that spaceflight will continue as usual and in comments reported online by space.com he said: “Because the nations are so interconnected in their work on the Space Station, it wouldn't really be possible for Russia to exit the
partnership without the whole mission falling apart. It's just not built that way.
"So, if we were to really say the partnership is over, we [would] pretty much both be saying the ISS is over. And I don't think either country wants that," Burbach added that in his personal view there would likely have to be "very significant warfare" between the nations back on Earth for such a thing to happen.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who has been at the ISS since last April, is currently scheduled to return to Earth at the end of March, touching down with two Russian cosmonauts in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.