In the same week that Russians circulated a horrific video of a Ukrainian soldier being castrated before his murder by Putin's invading troops, and dozens of Ukrainians POWs were slaughtered while in Russian captivity, the Russian space agency Roscosmos declared that Russia would depart the International Space Station program "after 2024", while the US Congress authorized NASA to extend the program to 2030.
All of this highlights how truly appalling it is that NASA and the other ISS partner nations have continued to work with Vladimir Putin's terrorist regime, when we should insist on an accelerated end to working with this pariah nation as it commits horrendous war crimes.
Daily, there are stories being added to those accumulated after months of unprovoked war. Civilians are killed; schools, hospitals and homes are targeted; Ukrainians in occupied territories are taken to "filtration camps" to be Russified or disappeared.
These are acts that have led the US Congress to issue a bipartisan call for the State Department to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. In almost every other sphere, the awareness that Putin's Russia is a terrorist state - a threat to guard against, a pariah state to isolate - has finally sunk in for Western nations. Yet NASA officials have defended their work with Russia as "professional", and presumably are just fine to keep working with Putin's regime.
No less a figure than Terry Virts, a former astronaut and ISS commander, has called on ending cooperation with Russia. "I truly hope that we will someday return to cooperation in a post-Putin Russia, but for now, NASA and other partner nations must make the tough decision to begin the process of disengagement," Virts recently wrote in The Hill. "The world is watching."
Ann Kapusta, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, put it well way back in March. "NASA is on a very short list of entities still in public partnership with Russia - even Starbucks, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have stopped doing business with the regime. We can't ignore that Roscosmos is now part of Putin's war machine. If they haven't already, NASA needs to begin the process of severing ties."
Yet the ISS continues to lend Putin's regime undeserved recognition. The station is a highly visible symbol of Russian standing - and a great propaganda tool for countering everything the other ISS partner countries stand for.
In early July, the three "professionals" from Russia on the ISS - Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergey Korsakov - unveiled flags that they had brought to the station months before, celebrating the bloody occupation of the Luhansk region of Ukraine, smiling for a photo Roscosmos used with its congratulation of Russia's soldiers for their war crimes. This was all the more provocative given that Artemyev was ISS commander at the time. NASA responded to this with a milquetoast public statement saying the agency "strongly rebukes" the action.
It is unlikely that any public hand-wringing by NASA will stop any future pro-war publicity stunts on the ISS by Russia. Indeed, next year Russia will fly someone from Belarus to the station as a reward for that country's instrumental aid in Russia's invasion. As the war continues and relations with the West worsen, it's likely that Russia will continue to use its role on the ISS for propaganda purposes.
To those who fret over Russia leaving: the fate of the ISS should come a distant second to consideration that ending the upholding of Russia's reputation in the world, and that NASA collaborates with terrorists. In essence, NASA and other ISS partners are currently spending billions of dollars to provide Russia with a soft- power platform while it commits genocide in Ukraine, and threatens the security every of single other country on the ISS.
There is no question a rapid Russian departure would be a disruption to this enterprise - but this is no different than the other disruptions that Putin's genocidal war have created, disruptions costing many billions of dollars. Whether the democratic countries involved in the ISS can salvage the program after a Russian departure, or it is deemed better to end the program at that time, the primary concern should be over ending the Russian presence on Western terms, as soon as possible, whatever that may entail.
NASA itself will clearly of course not advocate for anything but keeping Russia as long as possible. Therefore, the impetus for calling Roscosmos' repeated bluff and setting a date for NASA to end its work with Putin's employees must come from NASA's overseers and the public.
Luckily, there's a simple mechanism available to force NASA's hand. In 2011, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced what has become known as the Wolf Amendment. In two admirably short paragraphs, Public Law 112-10, Sec. 1340 places strict legal limits on NASA from working with China.
There is nothing to prevent Russia to be added to the language, with a sunset date on cooperation to give NASA (and the other ISS partners) time to develop a formal, publicly discussed plan for separating the Western nations from Russia in the ISS program. What would this mean for the ISS? There is a range of possibilities, including simply ending the program much earlier than the 2030 end date now planned, to having the West separate it's parts of the ISS from Russia's.
"Splashing" the ISS early - in perhaps 2024, which was until recently the program end date - is not the only choice, although in many ways it is the easiest. It should be noted that the ISS requires about $3 billion from NASA alone to maintain. This money could be used to bolster the private-public efforts for next-generation LEO space stations, as well as to help advance NASA's Artemis lunar program. Assuming an outcome where the democracies' side of the station is separated from that of Putin's, preserving the democracies' side of the ISS - and all the NASA manager jobs currently associated with it - would be difficult but hardly impossible.
Replacing the re-boost and maneuvering propulsion that Russia provides is an issue, but hardly a decisive one. The ISS requires periodic re-boosts via rocket firings to maintain its orbit and to occasionally move out of the way of space debris. Developing a replacement capability is not trivial, but also not impossible. A demonstration of such capability from Northrop Grumman's Cygnus cargo craft has already been carried out. The Interim Control Module originally developed for the station, then mothballed when Russia was brought onto the space station program, is available for completion and use. Even increased-efficiency electric propulsion options are available, thanks to work on NASA's lunar Gateway.
A more serious issue is the process of physically decoupling the democratic side of the ISS from the terrorist side. Beyond the significant technical issues involved, this would need to be done in a way that ensures the safety and security of any ISS crew during the required operations.
(It has been pointed out that the Russian module cluster could largely form its own functional station upon separation. So be it. Because shifting the orbital plane of such a complex is all but impossible, Russia can choose only to operate their modules in essentially the same orbit as the ISS - hopefully at a good distance from the ISS - or to de-orbit their existing modules to focus on the new, crew-tended polar-orbit station. Given the effects of Western sanctions on an already financially strapped Roscosmos, maintaining any kind of solo Russian space station effort will be difficult.)
Given that Roscosmos keeps announcing their desire to leave, it is essential in any case that the ISS democracies make formal, public plans for what to do in any event. At the moment, NASA and its partners seem content to be held hostage to Russian whims. It should be clear what the favored options for an eventual split will be, how they would be executed, and what the future of Western governmental role in human LEO activity would be.
With Russia's stepped up war on Ukraine, and his threats against the West, it's time for the democratic ISS partners to stop working with Vladimir Putin and lending his barbaric regime credibility it does not deserve. It's time to set a near- term deadline for ending Western collaboration with Russia on the ISS.
Greg Zsidisin is an engineer and writer in Huntsville, Alabama USA.
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