NASA Can Run International Space Station Solo If Russia Pulls Out, Experts Say

NASA could run the International Space Station (ISS) independently if Russia's Roscosmos space agency were to pull out of the mission, experts have told Newsweek.

Space cooperation between Russia and the U.S. has been thrown into question in recent days as tensions rise between the two countries over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In response, the U.S. announced sanctions that President Joe Biden said would have an effect on Russia's space industry, stoking the ire of Dmitry Rogozin, director of Roscosmos.

In a series of Twitter posts last week, Rogozin suggested that blocking cooperation with Russia in space could lead to an uncontrolled deorbit of the ISS which has operated continuously in space for more than two decades. He later stated that Roscosmos would "focus on achieving full import independence in matters of space instrumentation."

More recently, Roscosmos stated that it would not service the remaining Russian RD-180 rocket engines in the U.S. and also said it would not cooperate with Germany on joint experiments in the Russian segment of the ISS.

Russia and the U.S. are the two largest contributors to the ISS's operations, with both countries operating their own sections. Notably, it is Russian technology that is responsible for maintaining the station's orbit.

Until recently, a loss of cooperation with Russia would have been a crippling blow to the U.S.'s human spaceflight interests as astronauts relied on Russian rockets and capsules to travel to the station after the Space Shuttle program was shut down in 2011. That is until NASA started using SpaceX to carry out ISS missions domestically from 2020 onwards.

While the ISS has always been a heavily cooperative venture, Greg Autry, professor of space leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management, Arizona State University, told Newsweek it was possible that Russian cosmonauts could leave the station if tensions continue to flare.

"The entire U.S.-Russia space relationship is clearly at risk under the current downward spiral," he said. "It was already tense with Roscosmos implying that Russia might leave the station and that they don't believe the station life can be extended to the current U.S. goal of 2030.

"It is clear NASA has to be making 'other arrangements' and I would imagine we will see Russia leave or be asked to leave within the year."

Jeff Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and a professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is unsure.

He told Newsweek that while Russia could certainly decide not to send any more cosmonauts up to the station, the country has invested time and money in the station's modules that they are still using. "I suppose they could do that. But would that make any sense? I don't know," he said.

Another possibility is that Russia could separate their part of the station from the rest of it, since the ISS is modular by nature. This would have drawbacks, however. Russia would have to replace utilities and electrical power currently provided by the U.S., Hoffman said.

"Whether they have the resources at the moment to do that given what's going on in Ukraine, I just don't know."

In a statement, NASA told Newsweek that there were no plans to deviate from the ISS's current state of operation.

"NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station," the agency said. "The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation. No changes are planned to the agency's support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations."

Meanwhile Roscosmos said: "Roscosmos continues fulfilling its international obligations to ensure ISS operation."

Could the U.S. Go It Alone?

Tackling the question of "what if?" both Hoffman and Autry said that the U.S. could operate the ISS solo if it had to—and perhaps should start planning for this eventuality.

The U.S. private space sector has stepped up significantly in recent years, with SpaceX just one notable case. It could even solve the issue of replacing Russia's ability to maintain the ISS's orbit.

"[Aerospace and defense technology company] Northrop Grumman is already testing a re-boost using their Cygnus capsule and Elon Musk has implied in a tweet that SpaceX would like to help with this too," said Autry. "Beyond using a capsule as an engine, ion thrusters could be installed on the station, which already has a lot of available solar electric power.

"NASA can go it alone and should plan on it. There are a number of systems where Russia adds value but each of these could be covered one way or another in the next few months."

This gives rise to the question of whether NASA would seek a replacement key ISS partner. One obvious choice would be India, which has been working to develop a human spaceflight program for years.

But replacing Russia's expertise in orbital maintenance with that of another country could be tricky if not impossible. "We have to do that ourselves," Hoffman said. "We don't need any more partners to keep the space station going."

Brendan Rosseau, a research associate at Harvard Business School studying the development of the space economy, isn't so sure. "A breakdown in cooperation could have serious long-term consequences for the ISS, perhaps even leading to its deorbit prior to the intended 2030 date," he said.

In addition, whether the U.S. government would fork up the money to ensure the ISS remains operational to its desired 2030 end date without Russia is unknown.

A Loss for Space Flight

Astronauts and cosmonauts
NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel (L) and Richard Arnold (R) sit with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev (C) ahead of an ISS mission. They are seen here in Moscow on February 21, 2018. STR/AFP/Getty

At the moment, nothing is certain. It could well be the case that Russia and the U.S. will continue to cooperate in space with cosmonauts and astronauts weathering the crisis as has happened in the past.

Rosseau has spoken to many astronauts and cosmonauts who have worked together on Earth and in space.

"Each has described what a meaningful, human experience that was," he said. "Many of them are now close friends who pride themselves on overcoming political and national differences to cooperate on advancing human knowledge and exploration.

"Rogozin's threats and bravado are imperiling the progress made by generations of brave astronauts and cosmonauts. And though they may not say it openly, I'm willing to bet there are a lot of cosmonauts who are pretty unhappy with Rogozin, and even more unhappy with the real cause of this breakdown in U.S.-Russo space collaboration: Vladimir Putin."

International Space Station
The International Space Station, as seen from the Space Shuttle Endeavour in May, 2011. The U.S. and Russia have cooperated on the ISS for more than two decades. NASA/Getty