PARIS --- Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there have been many questions about the future of the International Space Station, where two Russian cosmonauts, four Americans and one German currently live and work.
One can imagine that the atmosphere of this space “huis-clos” must be rather peculiar, even if the routine of the technical programme of each one must (opportunely) leave little time for geopolitical exchanges and even if, over the weeks, relations of esteem and sympathy must certainly have been created between these space professionals. But in the end, things will go according to plan and, after a year in space, American astronaut Mark Vande Hei will embark on 30 March in the Soyuz capsule docked to the station and descend to Kazakhstan with his two Russian colleagues Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov.
In the meantime, three other Russian cosmonauts were sent up on Friday 18 March to take over what promises to be a 'diplomatically' delicate task.
Will they be the last Russian cosmonauts to work on board the station? Probably not, because, as Joel Montalbano, the station's programme director for NASA, said a few days ago, "The Space Station was designed on the principle of interdependence: it is not a process in which one group can separate from the other. At the moment, there is no indication that our Russian partners want to do things differently. So, we plan to continue operations as we do today. He also confirmed that the exchange planned for the autumn (a Russian cosmonaut sent to the ISS in a SpaceX spacecraft, and a NASA astronaut in a Soyuz) was still on track (for the time being …).
For Westerners, this is by far the least complicated of the issues to be resolved. Since the beginning of the ISS project, the Russians have played an important role in the operation of the space station and the West will find it difficult to do without them.
It is worth noting that, regardless of the services purchased or exchanged for the transport of astronauts, the Russian Soyuz was the only spacecraft to provide the rescue boat function for all ISS crews between 2001 and 2020.
Firstly, it should be remembered that the station's central computer is Russian; without the technical support of their supplier, Westerners will have to take advantage of the redundancies that had been planned to make the whole thing work without risk.
The second problem is the most often cited because it is the most spectacular, even though it should eventually be resolved without a major crisis. The space station flies at an altitude where the Earth's atmosphere still creates drag, which requires regular reboosts to 'pull up' its orbit. The station operates in low Earth orbit at an altitude of over 400 km and has a mass of over 430 tonnes. Depending on solar activity, the station's orbital lifetime (the time before the station naturally re-enters the atmosphere due to atmospheric drag alone) at this altitude is about one to two years without a re-boost. Otherwise, it will naturally fall back to Earth.
From the outset, it was the Russians who were responsible for regularly returning the station to its orbit, using a space freighter called Progress. Following a well-established procedure, the cargo ship docked with the station, delivered all the supplies it had carried in its cargo bay, fired its engine and used its fuel to 'lift' the station back into orbit. Once empty, Progress would leave the station and disintegrate in the atmosphere. This would continue until the next cargo ship arrived.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, several statements by the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, on social networks have raised the threat of a withdrawal of the Progress cargo ships. The Russian agency has repatriated all 87 of its staff assigned to French Guiana; many Western satellite launches by Russian launchers will certainly be cancelled and it is difficult to see how these missions can be continued.
In the 2010s, the Europeans built five ATV-like cargo/trailer spacecraft that worked perfectly, but the programme was stopped... because the Russians could do it.
That leaves Cygnus. An American space freighter - with Northrop and Thales involved in its construction - that regularly delivers two tonnes of supplies to the station. Before the Russian invasion, NASA had planned an experimental attempt to boost the ISS with the Cygnus, which is currently docked. It is about to carry out this test and validate the entire sequence. In theory, Cygnus could therefore take over from Progress.
The only problem is that Cygnus is being sent to the station by a launcher called Antares, whose first stage is ... Russian and whose engines ... are Ukrainian. There are still two Antares in stock, enough to last a year and a half. Ariane 5 is no longer available. Ariane 6 will not be available for a while. So Cygnus may have to be adapted to a launcher like the Falcon 9.
Third problem: in the event of a Russian withdrawal from the ISS - which has not been mentioned today - what should be done with Zvezda, the Russian part of the ISS? The Zvezda module contains some of the station's living equipment and can accommodate two crew members. It is the structural and functional centre of the Russian part of the Station. Who can predict how far the crisis and sanctions will go? Russia could very well decide to separate Zvezda from the rest of the station, but the problem would be to disarm an orbital complex and cut cables that have been added continuously for 20 years. A very difficult operation... almost impossible.
In the long term, the future of the International Space Station will certainly have to be rethought. The plan was to keep the ISS alive until 2030 and let it disintegrate in 2031, but without its Russian component, will the West - in this case the Americans - decide that it is better to lock the hatches of the ISS for the last time in five or six years' time and put all its energy into a new private station such as the Axiom, Starlab or Orbital Reef projects?
After 2030, the ISS should indeed be replaced by one or more private orbital stations. In any case, NASA will be the main client of the private stations, which will maintain the American presence in low-Earth orbit and not just leave it to competing countries (China, Russia).
And what about Europe?
The European Space Agency (ESA) announced last Thursday that it had decided to suspend the Russian-European ExoMars mission and to start looking for alternatives for the launch of four other missions because of the offensive in Ukraine.
In a fascinating book that has just been published (Le Vol spatial habité, un choix structurant pour l'Europe, Ed. Skyshelf), the French specialist Philippe Coué clearly shows that as long as Europe does not develop an autonomous manned spaceflight capability, it will remain subject to the uncertainties generated by the global geostrategic situation.
Even though this book was written shortly before the Ukrainian crisis, it is easy to see that the latter highlights even more the need for a political impetus towards European space sovereignty. For Europe, space exploration must now be seen in terms of a truly competitive and therefore reusable future launcher, a vehicle capable to carry a crew whose primary destination would be a post-ISS space station in international cooperation and with a commercial approach.
Europe is struggling to develop the last piece of this puzzle: an autonomous access to explore space and inhabit it. This situation is paradoxical, as it has already mastered all the necessary technologies to proceed. It has demonstrated that it possesses all the pieces of the technological puzzle: launcher, transporter, spacecraft, etc.
Will the current crisis contribute to forging the political will to join those who will make up the tomorrow’s astronautics and the cosmos 'influencers' of after tomorrow?
* After forty years of experience, first as a senior European civil servant, then as a senior executive in the French aerospace industry, Yves Robins is now a strategic advisor to the European aerospace and defence industry in Brussels.