Yuri Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, expanded on comments he made last week indicating the country's intent to disassociate from the International Space Station "after 2024."
It appears some of that message may have been lost in translation. In an interview with Russia 24, a state-run Russian news channel, Borisov clarified, "We announced that we intend to do this not in 2024, but after 2024. In Russian, these are two big differences."
The interview was posted to the Roscosmos website in Russian; quotes printed here in English were translated using Google Translate. In the interview, Borisov outlined the underlying strategy Roscosmos is taking toward its International Space Station (ISS) departure plans and clarified the agency's intent to carry on according to international agreements. "The procedure for the withdrawal of the Russian side from the international ISS project is clearly regulated," Borisov explained.
"We must warn our colleagues a year in advance that we will do this for such and such circumstances. We have not warned [NASA] about this yet; there is no need for this. We just said that after 2024 we will start the exit process," Borisov said in the interview. He added that the withdrawal "can take up to two years." He also said such notice might come at some point during 2024 or 2025.
Borisov's comments aren't exactly stunning; Russian space officials reportedly told their NASA counterparts last week that Roscosmos wants to stay in the ISS partnership for a while yet — ideally, until Russia gets its own space station up and running in 2028 or thereabouts.
"About two years ago, we began to seriously think about continuing the [crewed] program and developing a domestic orbital station," Borisov said. He cited the "authoritative opinion of many experts" predicting the heightened possibility of cascade failures in ISS systems after 2024 — the stated reasoning behind his "2024" remarks earlier in the week.
"The time that our cosmonauts, including American astronauts, spend on searching for possible malfunctions and eliminating them begins to exceed all reasonable limits. This is done at the expense of scientific research," said Borisov.
In fact, NASA is also thinking about its plans for low Earth orbit access following the retirement of the ISS. For example, the American space agency has awarded funding to multiple companies to develop commercial space stations to take the baton from the ISS. Though the orbiting lab is officially approved to operate only through 2024, NASA wants to keep it up and running through 2030. Borisov sees a point of diminishing returns before that later date, however.
The Roscosmos chief asserted that, because many of the U.S. modules on the ISS are newer than the bulk of the Russian section, the Russian modules don't have many useful science contributions left to make.
"The lion's share of plans for this orbital inclination (51.6 degrees), in particular, experiments on the ISS, have been completed," he said. "From a scientific point of view, we do not see any additional dividends by stretching this process until 2030. And the funds that will be spent on maintaining the Russian part and our participation are huge."
Russia's premature departure could possibly derail NASA's hopes to continue flying the ISS through the end of the decade. NASA recently tested the ability of a private American Cygnus cargo vehicle to perform an altitude correction for the space station, which requires periodic boosts to maintain its orbit. To date, Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles have been responsible for carrying out ISS orbital corrections.
A 2022 report from a team of NASA and Roscosmos engineers outlines a plan to deorbit the ISS in a controlled manner using three Russian Progress freighters, but it's unclear whether altitude boosts from Cygnus could translate to a similar capability. Borisov told Russia 24, "In the opinion of our Western colleagues and our specialists, most likely, this will not be possible without Russian participation."
Thankfully, cooperation may be a priority for the new head of the Russian space agency — at least compared to his predecessor Dmitry Rogozin, who became well known for blustery and antagonistic statements, especially following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"The ISS project has enriched world science in the field of knowledge about the universe and the Earth, has given all participants in this process new knowledge, and has united us to some extent. I believe that both today and in the future, such projects should be out of politics," Borisov said. "I am very sorry that sometimes in this difficult time our joint projects in space, which are of interest to all mankind, begin to give a political coloring. It is not right."
Moreover, Borisov seemed to concede that Roscosmos has fallen behind some other countries' space agencies. "If we compare today the state of the space constellations of the main players in this market — Americans, Europeans and Chinese — then they have long overtaken us in this regard."
Borisov added that Roscosmos "owes" the Russian economy and stated his intent to radically restructure "the main processes of the technological cycle, such as development, production [and] testing," at the Russian space agency.