Will Russia leave the International Space Station? Take Roscosmos chief's words with a grain of salt

The International Space Station as pictured from a SpaceX Crew Dragon during a November 2021 fly around.
The International Space Station as pictured from a SpaceX Crew Dragon during a November 2021 fly around. (Image credit: NASA)

You may have heard that Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin recently threatened, yet again, to pull his nation out of the International Space Station program.

Several media outlets reported that news last weekend, basing their stories on an interview that Rogozin — the head of Russia's federal space agency Roscosmos — gave recently to Russian state television about leaving the International Space Station program. But, as Ars Technica's Eric Berger noted, Rogozin's words don't really amount to a threat.

"The decision has been taken already; we’re not obliged to talk about it publicly," Rogozin said, according to Bloomberg. "I can say this only: In accordance with our obligations, we’ll inform our partners about the end of our work on the ISS with a year’s notice."

That's not an announcement of a departure from the program — just an acknowledgement that Roscosmos will give the other partners a heads-up if such a decision is made. (The ISS partners, including Roscosmos, are currently signed on to operate the orbiting lab through the end of 2024. NASA wants to keep the station going through the end of 2030, a desire backed by U.S. President Joe Biden.)

Related: Ukraine invasion's impacts on space exploration

Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin (right) shakes hands with then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 10, 2018. (Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

What Rogozin wants

Rogozin's statements need to be viewed through a particular lens: He is angry about the economic sanctions imposed on Russia due to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine and wants them lifted. He has railed against the sanctions repeatedly over the past few months, on several occasions suggesting that their existence imperils the ISS partnership.

For example, on Feb. 24 — the day the invasion began — Rogozin said on Twitter that the sanctions could "destroy" cooperation on the ISS. And on April 2, he tweeted (in Russian), "I believe that the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions." 

(Rogozin has since protected his tweets, so only approved followers can see them. That's why we're not linking to them here.)

These statements raise the prospect of Roscosmos leaving the ISS partnership but certainly don't promise that such a move is imminent. And it's tough to know how seriously to take any Rogozin threat, either explicit or implicit, because he's a blustery figure prone to making hyperbolic statements.

In April 2014, for example, when he was Russia's deputy prime minister, Rogozin suggested that the United States should use a trampoline to get its astronauts to the space station. This comment, a reference to NASA's total dependence at the time on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crewed orbital flight, came shortly after sanctions were imposed on Russia for a previous invasion of Ukraine. During that invasion in February 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which it still holds today. 

(The U.S. can get astronauts to and from the ISS now, thanks to SpaceX, which launched its first crewed mission to the orbiting lab in May 2020. Just after that liftoff, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk clapped back at Rogozin, saying, "The trampoline is working!")

Related: 8 ways that SpaceX has transformed spaceflight

What are the odds?

So, what are the odds that Russia actually does leave the ISS program in a huff in the relatively near future? Not high, according to NASA chief Bill Nelson.

"They are not pulling out," Nelson said Tuesday (May 3) during a hearing of the U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee, as reported by SpacePolicyOnline.

"I see nothing in the very even-keeled professional relationship between the cosmonauts and the astronauts, between Mission Control in Moscow and Houston, in the training of Russian cosmonauts in America and American astronauts in Moscow and Baikonur [the Russian-run cosmodrome in Kazakhstan]," Nelson added. 

"I see nothing that has interrupted that professional relationship no matter how awful [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is conducting a war with such disastrous results in Ukraine," he said. "We see every reason that the Russians are going to continue on the space station for the immediate future and, of course, we personally hope that they will continue with us all the way to 2030."

That professional relationship was on display on March 30, when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei came back to Earth with two cosmonauts in a Soyuz spacecraft after an American-record 355-day stay aboard the ISS. The landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan, and everything that followed, went off without a hitch, said former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, citing conversations with Americans who were there.

"They said you would have not known the difference with how they were treated, the relationship there," Kelly told Space.com last month.

Kelly — who has four spaceflights under his belt, including a 340-day stay aboard the ISS from March 2015 to March 2016 — is an outspoken critic of the Russian invasion. He has called Putin a murderous dictator and a war criminal, and he got into a Twitter fight with Rogozin shortly after the invasion began. (Kelly has stopped targeting Rogozin directly, complying with a request from NASA officials concerned that such feuds could damage the ISS partnership.) 

Kelly is obviously no fan of Rogozin, but he stressed that Roscosmos is far bigger than one man.

"I know NASA is committed to maintaining this partnership with Russia," Kelly said. "I know most of the people at the Russian space agency are as well. I'm not too sure about Rogozin, but others that I know that work there are good people."

Most of Russia's other space partnerships have fallen apart as a result of the Ukraine invasion. For example, Europe recently announced that its life-hunting Mars rover Rosalind Franklin will no longer launch atop a Russian Proton rocket and land on a Russian-built platform, as previously planned — moves that will likely push the rover's liftoff back six years, to 2028. Russia is no longer selling Russian-made rocket engines to American companies, and Soyuz rockets aren't flying out of Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana as they once did.

So Russia may wish to remain in the ISS partnership to avoid further deterioration of the nation's civil space program, at least until it has other options, some experts have suggested.

"Just to summarize the discussion: Roscosmos will hold on to ISS for as long as technically and politically possible. The goal is to sustain the ISS until the Russian station is ready, which [is] realistically not likely before the 2030s," journalist and author Anatoly Zak, who runs RussianSpaceWeb.com, said via Twitter on Wednesday (May 4), referring to the planned Russian Orbital Service Station.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.