The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been dominating the news cycle lately. Amid tragic stories about rocket strikes, stalled offensives, and possible motives and outcomes, there’s been an ongoing “war of words” on social media. In particular, Dmitry Rogozin, the Director-General of the Russian State Space Corporation (Roscosmos), has been issuing thinly-veiled threats that Russia might be terminating its cooperation in space.
This included a video posted on Telegram by the state-controlled Russian news agency RIA Novosti that shows the Russian modules detaching from the International Space Station (ISS). In response to all the threats and hyperbole, NASA decided to host an FAQ session where they posted commonly-asked questions about the ISS. In what is eerily reminiscent of what happened in 2014, NASA let the world know that the ISS is still going strong and won’t be decommissioned anytime soon!
While the FAQ session does not address statements made by Rogozin directly, it tacitly acknowledges and answers them strategically. For example, NASA addressed the nature of the ISS partnership, which nations are involved*, how astronauts will continue to fly to the ISS if one space agency no longer provides launch services, and the plan for decommissioning the station.
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*Member states include NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
First and foremost, they stress that one cannot simply disassemble the ISS by detaching its modules. This was a direct challenge to the video posted by RIA Novosti and the way it depicted cosmonauts sealing their modules and leaving like it was no big deal. Says NASA:
“The space station was not designed to be disassembled, and current interdependencies between each segment of the station prevent the U.S. Orbital Segment and Russian Segment from operating independently. Attempts to detach the U.S. Orbital Segment and the Russian Segment would encounter major logistical and safety challenges given the multitude of external and internal connections, the need to control spacecraft attitude and altitude, and software interdependency.”
They then provide a seven-point list detailing how operations are interdependent and who provides what. This includes propulsion and attitude control (Roscosmos), altitude control and orientation (NASA), thrusters and propellant (Roscosmos), solar power (NASA), satellite communications and data transfer between Earth and the station (NASA), life support (both), and mission control (both).
Then there’s the issue of getting to and from the ISS, which they admit is not presently doable. “Each astronaut has custom hardware including a launch and entry suit or a seat liner that is not interchangeable between different models of spacecraft,” they write, adding that transferring from one spacecraft to another would “require a different launch and entry suit that is custom fitted and created on the ground.”
The issue of transportation has been a sore point ever since 2011 when the Space Shuttle’s retirement forced NASA and its partners to rely upon Roscosmos to provide launch services. When Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014, this dependency became a bone of contention. In response to the U.S. declaring sanctions, Dmitry Rogozin (then-deputy Prime Minister to Dmitry Medvedev) chimed in on Twitter to mock the U.S. and NASA.
“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” he wrote. Musk responded shortly thereafter, tweeting: “Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that @SpaceX has been working on w @NASA. No trampoline needed.”
Oh, how history repeats itself! On March 3rd, shortly after President Biden announced new sanctions against Russia, Rogozin took to state television to say that Roscosmos was halting the sale of rocket engines to the U.S. “In a situation like this, we can’t supply the United States with our world’s best rocket engines,” he said. “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson responded to The Associated Press, stressing that cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos’ was not in jeopardy, regardless of Rogozin’s statements. “That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us,” he said. “The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts, and American mission control.”
Alas, Musk took to Twitter once again to respond. On March 3rd, he shared a video of SpaceX launching its latest batch of Starlink satellites, followed by the words “American Broomstick” and four U.S. flags. Was this perhaps a reminder that NASA and SpaceX restored domestic launch capability to U.S. soil in 2020 using the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule?
Regardless, the issue of steering and control is also raised in the NASA FAQ session. This is especially important, as it addresses the statement made by Rogozin about how – without the Russian modules steering it – the ISS would “fall” on the U.S., Europe, India, or China (basically, anywhere but Russia). First, they addressed what parts of Earth the station fly over:
“The International Space Station orbits with an inclination of 51.6 degrees. This means that, as it orbits, the farthest north and south of the Equator it will ever go is 51.6 degrees latitude.” They state. They also offer links to the orbit Tutorial page (so people can see precisely how the ISS orbits Earth) and the Spot The Station page, where sighting opportunities can be found.
In another question, the NASA FAQ addresses which space agency provides propulsion and explains how steerage is dependent on more than just the Russian modules:
“All International Space Station propulsion is provided by the Russian Segment and Russian cargo spacecraft. Propulsion is used for station reboost, attitude control, debris avoidance maneuvers and eventual deorbit operations are handled by the Russian Segment and Progress cargo craft. The U.S. gyroscopes provide day-to-day attitude control or controlling the orientation of the station. Russian thrusters are used for attitude control during dynamic events like spacecraft dockings and provide attitude control recovery when the gyroscopes reach their control limits.”
However, they remind us the ISS program has been in continuous operation for 21 years, thanks to ongoing cooperation between its international partners. They further point out that NASA has agreed to extend the life of the ISS through 2028 and that “NASA’s space agency partners have all recommended International Space Station extension through 2030 with approvals pending through their own government processes.”
This includes Roscosmos, which is committed to remaining with the ISS program until 2024 and even added their “Nauka” module last year. This guidance and navigation module is the first to be added since 2016 and will provide additional attitude control capabilities to the ISS. NASA also explained how the safe deorbiting of the ISS (when it is decommissioned, years from now) is a priority all parties are committed to:
“The primary objective during space station deorbit operations is the safe re-entry of the space station’s structure into an unpopulated area in the ocean as outlined in the agency’s International Space Station transition plan.“
This plan, which was updated on January 31st, 2022, details the administration’s goals for the ISS until 2030. The plan calls for operations that allow for a smooth transition to commercial services, the development of the supply and demand end of a “commercial economy” in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and the technical steps and budgets this will entail.
“The space station will accomplish the deorbit maneuvers by using the propulsive capabilities of the space station and its visiting spacecraft,” they add. “NASA and its partners have evaluated varying quantities of Russian Progress spacecraft to support deorbit operations. Additionally, NASA is evaluating whether U.S. commercial spacecraft can be modified to provide capability to deorbit the space station.”
This includes the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, which NASA claims is “currently in testing to provide limited capability for future reboosts.” They acknowledge that this is not a long-term solution or a replacement for attitude control functions and that “[c]hanges to the current propulsion scheme would take considerable new hardware/software development, and significant time and funding to enact.”
Not mentioned is the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which Musk and other sources online claim could replace the Russians segment. With relatively minor modifications, they argue, Crew Dragon spacecraft could provide reboost capability and attitude control. If feasible, this could constitute a solid backup option and would be in keeping with how NASA has transitioned to commercial suppliers to meet much of its needs.
The takeaway from all of this is that operations aboard the ISS are and always have been interdependent. Russia cannot simply pack up and detach its modules any more than Rogozin could sprout wings and fly there to shoot some propaganda videos. While they don’t say so, NASA’s FAQ page reminds us that the ISS has endured political turmoil before and survived.
For the past eight years, while Russia and the U.S. have been locked in a state of mutual hostility, NASA and Roscomos have maintained good relations. Even when politicians were threatening war and sanctions, astronauts and cosmonauts managed to work together amiably aboard the ISS. Perhaps world leaders could take a page from their book?
Further Reading: NASA