MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will pull out of the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbiting outpost, the country’s new space chief said Tuesday amid high tensions between Moscow and the West over the fighting in Ukraine.
The announcement, while not unexpected, throws into question the future of the 24-year-old space station, with experts saying it would be extremely difficult — perhaps a “nightmare,” by one reckoning — to keep it running without the Russians. NASA and its partners had hoped to continue operating it until 2030.
“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, appointed this month to lead the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. He added: “I think that by that time we will start forming a Russian orbiting station.”
The space station has long been a symbol of post-Cold War international teamwork in the name of science but is now one of the last areas of cooperation between the U.S. and the Kremlin.
NASA officials said they had yet to hear directly from their Russian counterparts on the matter. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying that the agency was “committed to the safe operation” of the space station through 2030 and continues “to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called the announcement “an unfortunate development” given the “valuable professional collaboration our space agencies have had over the years.” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. is “exploring options” for dealing with a Russian withdrawal.
Borisov’s statement reaffirmed previous declarations by Russian space officials about Moscow’s intention to leave the space station after 2024 when the current international arrangements for its operation end.
Russian officials have long talked about their desire to launch their own space station and have complained that the wear and tear on the aging International Space Station is compromising safety and could make it difficult to extend its lifespan.
Cost may also be a factor: With Elon Musk’s SpaceX company now flying NASA astronauts to and from the space station, the Russian space agency lost a major source of income. For years, NASA had been paying tens of millions of dollars per seat for rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
The Russian announcement is certain to stir speculation that it is part of Moscow’s maneuvering to win relief from Western sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, said last month that Moscow could take part in negotiations about a possible extension of the station’s operations only if the U.S. lifts its sanctions against Russian space industries.
Former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in reaction to Tuesday’s announcement: “Remember that Russia’s best game is chess.”
The space station is jointly run by Russia, the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada. The first piece was put in orbit in 1998, and the outpost has been continuously inhabited for nearly 22 years. It is used to…