You can tell you’ve left the American segment of the International Space Station (ISS) and entered the Russian segment when the walls go from white to salmon-colored. It’s a singularly unlovely salmon, and if Russian designers had to do it over again perhaps they’d have picked up a different can of paint. Either way, the color had a meaning: the U.S. and Russia—old Cold War rivals—might be cooperating in space, but this part of the giant station was still Russian soil.
This week that fact was more symbolic than it is literal. Yuri Borisov (the newly-appointed head of Roscosmos), the Russian space agency emerged from a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce that Washington and Moscow were ending their 24-year relationship, which has included building and operating the ISS.
“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Borisov said. “I think that by that time we will start forming a Russian orbiting station.”
It was unexpected, but not surprising. Since its infancy, the ISS had been decommissioned and scheduled for deorbital by 2024. But lately, NASA and President Joe Biden have been working on plans to extend the station’s operation until 2030. The 15 partner nations that control the ISS—which, in addition to the U.S. and Russia, include Canada, Japan, and eleven countries that are part of the European Space Agency (ESA)—would have to agree to the extension. According to Reuters, the 15 partner nations that control the ISS include Canada and Japan. They were also scheduled to discuss this topic today at a regular meeting. But Borisov’s comment has thrown all of that into question—and for more than just political reasons.
The station is composed of 17 habitable modules—six provided by Russia, eight by the U.S., two by Japan, and one by the ESA. The modules serve as laboratories and dormitories for the crew, with the U.S. and Russian segments performing three critical additional functions: The U.S. is responsible for maintaining and operating the wings of solar panels that provide the station with power, as well as operating the gyroscopes that keep the ISS stable; the Russian segment is responsible for periodically boosting the station’s orbit with bursts from the engines of an attached Progress cargo vehicle, which prevent the faint atmospheric drag—present even at the 402 km (250 mi.) altitude at which the station flies—from pulling the station out of the sky. The station wouldn’t be possible without the support of the other countries.
NASA put the best face possible on Borisov’s statement, pointing out that neither the White House nor the space agency had been formally notified of the pullout plans—and there may be a good reason for that. Russia is planning to create its own space station called ROSS and it will be flying in 2028. The day after Borisov’s announcement, the Roscosmos website published an interview with Vladimir Solovyov, an ISS flight director, in which he said, “We, of course, need to continue operating the ISS until we create a more or less tangible backlog for ROSS. We must take into account that if we stop manned flights for several years, then it will be very difficult to restore what has been achieved.” In the wake of Borisov’s threat, that’s diplomatic-speak for, “Never mind.”
If Russia is indeed back-pedaling, that’s a very good thing. Like the Cold War between 1950s- 1960s, relations between Russia’s U.S. has been a nightmare to observe. It was in space—first with the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, then with space shuttle flights to Russia’s now-deorbited Mir space station in the 1990s, and now with the ISS—that the two countries could join hands. This has been a key factor in maintaining peace over the past decades. It would be a pity—and a peril—to break it now.
Original publication of this article was TIME Space. Register here.
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