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How does the U.S.-Russia partnership work on the ISS?

The two space programs have long been intertwined, but that may not continue

How does the U.S. space partnership with Russia work, in light of current world events? Do NASA and Roscomos, the Russian space agency, still cooperate on the International Space Station? 

The short answer: Yes. Here’s the run down.

A quick history of U.S. and Russian cooperation in space

The U.S. and Russian space programs have been intertwined since the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957.

Sputnik 1 mockup

We went to the moon to beat the Soviet Union, and then started cooperating with them. The first joint mission between the U.S. and Soviet Union was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. 

In 1993, Russia and the U.S. began discussion of merging their two planned separate space stations: Mir 2 and Freedom. The first NASA astronaut arrived on Mir in 1995, and Russia launched the first module of the International Space Station, Zarya, in 1998, followed shortly by the first U.S. module Unity.

The first two modules of the ISS, credit: NASA

But it’s not just the governments — it’s the people too. These crews train together, fly together, live together in space. There’s a very professional and cordial relationship between astronauts and cosmonauts, and often they become close friends. 

Expedition 1, which launched on October 31, 2000, was the first long-duration stay on the ISS. The crew, which was two cosmonauts and one astronaut, arrived aboard a Soyuz capsule. Space Station has been continuously occupied ever since. I’m telling you all this to emphasize how interconnected our space programs have been, and why all the questions now are so relevant.

NASA and Roscosmos still work together closely. But it’s not clear how long that will continue.

Is Russia really withdrawing from the ISS?

Back in 2022, the new head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said that Russia would withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024. Now, the U.S. is only planning on staying on the ISS until 2030, at which point NASA will de-orbit Space Station, hand it over to commercial partners, or possibly continue operating it beyond 2030. Either way, it’s very possible the U.S. is not going to be on the ISS much past 2024, so on its surface, this statement from Roscosmos wasn’t a big deal.

ISS in 2018, credit: ESA

But, of course, given the geopolitical tensions in the world, it seemed like Roscosmos was saying that Russian withdrawal from the ISS would be imminent — and it wasn’t really clear what that would mean. Russia has been talking about building their own national space station for awhile now, and the 2022 announcement made clear that they wanted to focus the resources they have invested in the ISS on developing and building that space station. 

Russia’s space program is a bit of a mess, sometimes it feels held together by duct tape, it’s basically characterized by underfunding and old infrastructure and technology. Tt also can be hard to get real information about all of it for understandable reasons, and it doesn’t help that more of Russia’s focus on space has been military. There have also been issues with Russian spacecraft that are old but normally super dependable — a Soyuz launch abort last week, coolant leaks on a Soyuz and a Progress last year. It’s not a great situation, not to mention that ongoing leak on the Zvezda service module of the ISS.

So, if Russia had withdrawn from the ISS, what would that look like? Yes, Space Station was built in pieces, and there’s a Russian side and a U.S. side, and the astronauts and cosmonauts do usually keep to their respective areas — but it’s all fully integrated. You can’t just break off the Russian side and go start a new space station. But if they decided to do it anyways, the U.S. really wouldn’t be able to operate the ISS on its own without sending new construction up. 

The first three modules of the ISS, Credit: NASA

Not only are the life support and power systems interconnected, but Space Station’s propulsion is operated from Moscow. Also, it’s the Russian Progress resupply crafts that boost the ISS and raise its orbit when necessary. We’ve done this with a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply craft before, but it’s usually Progress, plus a boost is no match for the ISS’s onboard propulsion. 

But happily, we didn’t have to face this weird situation developing because Russia is still clearly an ISS partner. Back in April of last year, Russia agreed to stay on Space Station until at least 2028. Other international partners, including the U.S., Japan, Canada, and ESA countries, have agreed to remain until at least 2030.

NASA and Roscosmos support integrated crews

Additionally, NASA is still seat swapping with Russia. This involves NASA astronauts living in Russia with their families, learning to speak Russian, and training with cosmonauts and flying on Soyuz capsules, while cosmonauts do the same and fly on SpaceX Dragon capsules. Presumably if Boeing Starliner becomes operational this year, that arrangement will extend to that spacecraft as well.

Soyuz approaching the ISS, credit: NASA

NASA’s been a huge advocate for what they call “integrated crews.” This is a recent quote from NASA —

“NASA and Roscosmos fly integrated crews on U.S. crew spacecraft and on the Soyuz spacecraft to ensure continued safe operations of the International Space Station and the safety of its crew.”

In 2022, Russia and NASA agreed to seat swaps through 2025 — to be clear, there’s no money changing hands, it’s just swapping seats. Before NASA had the Crew Dragon though, NASA had to buy Soyuz seats for astronauts, which by 2020 had reached $90 million a seat (Part of the reason that Roscosmos has been struggling lately is because they’re no longer getting that influx of money from NASA.)

It’s clear why seat swaps important. If one spacecraft goes down or is inoperable, seat swaps provide redundancy to ensure that there’s a mechanism for both Russian and U.S. astronauts to travel to and from the ISS safely and reliably. This was especially important for NASA after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, when the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for 29 months, and the period from 2011 to 2020, when there were no operational spacecraft available to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and bring them home. 

Drawing of the Soyuz 1, which launched in 1967

But it’s not just Russia that’s ready to part ways with the U.S. in spaceflight. The U.S. is moving towards commercial partners; notice no one is talking about collaborating with Russia on another space station, nor is Russia part of the Artemis accords. 

Frankly, it’s questionable whether Russia even has the resources to develop, build, and launch the new space station they’ve been talking about to replace the ISS. Russia’s looking to partner with China for space operations; back in 2021, the two countries signed an agreement to build a lunar base at the lunar south pole, but it’s not clear anything has progressed on this front, beyond signing up countries such as Pakistan, South Africa, and Egypt.

What about the future?

So, right now, the tensions between the U.S. and Russia don’t really affect the ISS. NASA astronauts are continuing to train in Russia, and vice versa; there have been no issues with visas or travel for either side. There have been some issues with sanctions, according to SpaceNews, but it’s mostly at the individual level rather than governmental — it revolves around things like credit cards not working in Russia because banks aren’t doing business there. 

There have also been issues issues with being unable to use Microsoft services on Russian ISS computers because Microsoft stopped doing business with Russia. The relationship between the two space agencies NASA and Roscosmos continues to be professional. Day-to-day operations and management of the ISS are pretty much unchanged.

But past 2028, it’s not clear what will happen with U.S. and Russian cooperation in space. Working together has been incredibly important for both countries, and maintaining channels of communication through troubled times, so we’ll see if some form of it continues. But generally, it looks like both countries are going to go their separate ways.