Geopolitics in orbit: the International Space Station in danger? | science and technology
Ever since mankind set out to explore it, outer space has become a political playground. During the Cold War, investment in space exploration reached stratospheric levels due to the space race between Russia and the United States. Thanks to this investment, the period between 1957 and 1969 saw a number of important milestones such as the launch of the first artificial satellite into orbit, the first trip to outer space and the first moon landing. The implications of space exploration are also political: being a leader in this race also means being at the forefront of technological development, which affects all areas of life.
Today, the rules of the game are no longer those of the Cold War. In the eyes of governments, space exploration has lost its relevance and, with it, funds: the percentage of federal budgets allocated to both NASA, the American space agency, and Roscosmos, the Russian agency, is almost 10 times lower than it was in the 1960s.
As a counterweight to budget cuts, the space strategy has taken a cooperative turn; resulting in a diplomatic dance in which the great powers no longer step on each other’s toes.
The International Space Station (ISS), successor to the Russian Mir base, is coordinated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency (ESA, made up of 22 countries). Its creation in 1998 not only marked a turning point in relations between space agencies, but also enabled extraordinary scientific advances. The ISS has been visited by more than 253 astronauts – including Spaniard Pedro Duque – and, using its microgravity conditions, more than 3,000 experiments have been carried out which have led to scientific advances applicable both on Earth and future long-duration space missions.
Today, the future of the 420-ton station hangs by a thread. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shortened the strategy of international cooperation as countries around the world cut ties with Russia’s science sector amid international pressure to impose sanctions on Putin’s regime.
The European Union has excluded Russia from its two most important research programs: Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020. In Spain, Science Minister Diana Morant announced the suspension of all Spanish projects with Russian participation. The rupture has also reached the space exploration sector, where the ESA has suspended the ExoMars project. This mission, which was to send a robot explorer to Mars and had a budget of 1 billion euros, was scheduled for September this year.
Although the conflict with Russia has created doubts about the future of the ISS, it could cause space agencies in other countries to rethink the direction of their own strategy.
For its part, Russia has stopped selling rockets to the United States and canceled the launch of Soyuz rockets from the ESA base in French Guiana, where it was helping the European agency send satellites into space. .
It is therefore not surprising that there are concerns about the future of the ISS, where three American astronauts, one European astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts currently live. Russia had already suggested in 2021 that it would cease its participation in the ISS after 2024 in order to focus on its own space fleet. Catalyzed by conflict, this can happen sooner than expected, jeopardizing the entire project. Roscosmos is in charge of the ISS rockets that equip the station with orbital tugs – small pushes that lift it several miles at a time and are essential because, in its 25-mile (400-kilometre) high orbit, the structure gradually loses energy. Without the Russian rockets to make the orbital tugs, the energy leak would send the station down an average of 31 miles (50 km) per year, which is untenable for the continuation of the project.
But even if Russia chooses to continue on the ISS in the short term, alternatives to Russian resources must be sought.
“I doubt that such a collaboration will last much longer,” says Claude Nicollier, a Swiss ESA astronaut who has spent more than 1,000 hours in space. “The priority is to prevent the Putin government from trying to use it as a bargaining chip to reduce the current sanctions against Russia.”
That possibility has become more real since Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said on April 2 that Russian collaboration in space would only return to normal if sanctions were lifted. Autonomy from Russian technology on the ISS is possible – Nicollier notes that other agencies and the private sector are capable of creating rockets to supply the orbital tugs. As a potential candidate for this, Nicollier points to the American company SpaceX, which frequently collaborates with space agencies in exchange for generous subsidies.
Still, even if the missions of the Russian rockets could be carried out by another actor, it is unclear whether the ISS could remain operational without Roscosmos. Indeed, some instruments crucial for station control are located in the Russian part of the structure, and the remaining astronauts should be able to use them easily. Nicollier therefore favors cutting the thread and dropping the station in a controlled way to focus on more distant horizons. “ESA is an exploration agency; it doesn’t make sense for it to cling to near-Earth orbit control, which we already know well,” he argues. His proposal is to let private companies build and maintain space laboratories in these orbits. That way, government agencies would use those bases, but save money that could be invested in more interesting, more distant orbits around unknown objects. In practice, however, this would mean delegating the management of the near-Earth orbit to a few mega-corporations and, moreover, sacrificing agency autonomy, a scenario that undoubtedly carries its own risks.
The engine of science is political and its memory is essential to understanding both the possibilities of progress and the risks of stagnation. Although the conflict with Russia has raised doubts about the future of the ISS, it could prompt space agencies in other countries to rethink the direction of their own strategy. The current situation leaves no doubt that while space activity may concern the cosmos, it has everything to do with what happens on Earth.