Greg Autry

After more than two-decades partnering with the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, Russia has announced plans to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) by 2024. Such a move could leave America’s huge investment in the station and our astronauts vulnerable if immediate action is not taken. While many questions whether Russia will follow through on its declaration—after all, this is the same country that swore it had no intention of invading Ukraine—most Western policymakers have come to the reluctant conclusion that this collaboration should not continue as long as Putin remains in power. Regardless of how or when Russia leaves, creativity and cooperation with our international and commercial partners are paramount in paving the best path forward for American space exploration and diplomacy. 

All Good Things Must Come to an End 

In the beginning, partnering on the ISS was financially and politically beneficial for both the U.S. and Russia. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration envisioned a U.S. “Space Station Freedom,” but the unexpectedly high cost of space shuttle operations made an international effort more realistic. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a further impetus for constructive engagement with Russia in space. Following the successful collaborative space mission in the 1970s—Apollo-Soyuz—the Clinton administration decided to pivot to an international approach, and the International Space Station was born. While the ISS now includes 15 countries, it is operationally bifurcated—Russia operates one side, and the U.S. and its partners operate the other.  

Up until the Ukrainian invasion, the 20-year partnership has been an extremely positive one. Flying brightly over most countries on Earth, the ISS symbolized peace and unity during war and political upheaval and facilitated incredible technological advancements. Retired Air Force Colonel and NASA astronaut Terry Virts described his time with the Russians as one of the highlights of his time in space. “I wanted [the Russians and the Americans] to be one crew, so at night I would take my dinner in a Ziploc bag, and float down to the Russian segment,” Virts said in an NPR interview. “We had a great time. We listened to the radio, they told jokes, and they taught me a lot of Russian words that I didn't learn in class. They called it the cultural program. Probably my proudest accomplishment at NASA was keeping that crew together during 2015 when we were in space during Crimea.” Unfortunately, this cozy relationship would soon run its course.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has been dependent on U.S. funding and European partnerships for a long time. Roscosmos has had a series of public problems in the past few years with its launch systems, capsules, and station modules. Russian space credibility has suffered. It is clear that Russia can no longer afford a world-class space program, and the current Russian regime—and the invasion of Ukraine—has moved our partnership from the difficult to the impossible. 

From the start, the U.S. has contributed the majority of the components and funding for the ISS—$100 billion of the $130 billion in total construction costs—and continues to carry the bulk of the financial burden for operations. To offset this, Russia has contributed various modules that keep the station safe and livable—most importantly, the rockets that occasionally reboost the station to keep the ISS in its proper orbit.

If Russia were to leave the station in 2024—or perhaps even more abruptly—and take its technology with it, the ISS would deorbit and put the astronauts in grave danger. Russia also supplies additional water and critically, a secondary CO2 air removal system. Without backup systems in place, it could create a dangerous environment for the astronauts still onboard the ISS. The U.S. should take aggressive action to deploy commercial technologies in place of these Russian systems. 

The Commercial Space Race Could be the Solution 

More commercial companies are now working on space technologies than ever before. SpaceX has already indicated its capabilities to create new rocket boosters for the ISS. Other companies and countries have also stated their willingness and ability to supply crucial technologies in preparation for Russia’s exit. We should utilize these partnerships to protect our astronauts and the ISS until it’s decommissioned.

While the space station is, without a doubt, one of the greatest creations of humankind, it wasn’t built to last forever. In fact, the ISS program was supposed to end around this time. The Trump administration announced it would be taken out of service by 2025 in hopes that posting a firm expiration date would incentivize investment into commercial companies that can provide a replacement for the space station. The goal being that commercial operators assume dominance in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), so NASA can focus on the Moon and eventually Mars exploration. 

The decommission date was pushed back to 2031 by the Biden administration with support from states, such as Texas, which enjoy significant employment from the ISS project. Russia’s announcement that they will be leaving the station in 2024 gives the U.S. a new impetus to accelerate commercialization, if only for replacing their capabilities within the station.

Once the ISS is fully decommissioned, the current plan is to launch it on a farewell voyage to the bottom of the sea. However, a different kind of retirement could turn that terribly negative image into something positive by preserving the ISS as a valuable material resource or historical artifact. With some reinforcement of its structure and a boost into a higher orbit, ISS could remain safely above atmospheric drag and above the majority of LEO satellite traffic for centuries. Whereas a sunken space station can only be read about in textbooks, the ISS’s robust history could remain intact as a sort of space museum for a future era of space tourism. Alternatively, it could be a useful source of refined materials for future commercial operations. I have pushed this for years. NASA looked at the idea briefly and dismissed it. With Roscosmos clearly on the way out, the agency’s $300 million plan to utilize Russian Progress vehicles to deorbit the ISS needs rethinking. 

Moving Forward in Space, One Small Step at a Time

The ISS has been a crowning achievement for the U.S. and Russia, and although the partnership is coming to a necessary close, the future of space exploration must continue to include international and commercial collaboration. Even more importantly, we must think more creatively about the future of international space collaboration. This will ensure that our new space society is built on diversity, inclusion, respect, and transparency. Because of this overarching vision, it is essential to partner with countries that show true respect for human rights and our planet so that we can bring those ideologies with us to the moon, Mars, and beyond. 

The Artemis Accords is a great example of this. The Artemis Accords is an agreement between the U.S. and other countries—currently 22—to set standards for operations in deep space. Grounded in the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the Artemis Accords aim to create a space economy and society rooted in representation, equality, and transparency. This will enable the Artemis program to return a more diverse group of humans to the Moon and perhaps eventually lead to human exploration of Mars. As commercial operators take over the functions of ISS in LEO, America can focus more heavily on this endeavor—and others like it—and move humankind forward as a multi-planetary society. 

One major issue we face with international space collaboration is the enormous amount of red tape surrounding international tech sharing. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and other laws and agreements are in place to ensure that advanced space technologies aren’t transferred into the wrong hands. These policies are effective and critical but now require a practical reevaluation that will support the success of America’s commercial space boom.

To have successful international cooperation, we need to create programs and policies that will protect our nation and the world from the misuse of such advanced technology while allowing for collaboration in science and technology.

While Russia’s departure from the ISS presents real challenges, it also allows us to rethink the future of space and turn our attention to the moon, Mars, and other space exploration. 

 Preparing for the New Space Economy

While no one can say for certain whether Russia’s withdrawal announcement is a promise it intends to keep—and the U.S. can always hope for a more friendly regime in Moscow—NASA must be prepared for anything. It must utilize its existing commercial partnerships and continue to develop new ones. The space industry needs to think more creatively about how to engage with international partners and reevaluate policies and programs to support that level of collaboration. We must prepare leaders to work in the new space economy by teaching cross-disciplinary skills and fostering a global and multi-planetary mindset. We need leaders who understand the intricacies of the new space economy and think innovatively about the challenges and solutions associated with the industry.

As a professor and Director of the Thunderbird Initiative for Space Leadership, Policy, and Business for  Thunderbird School of Global Management, I’m very excited to be working with some of the brightest minds to contribute to the future of space exploration and diplomacy. Thunderbird is a leader in space management education and has two of the most innovative programs, the Executive Master of Global Management (Specialization in Space Leadership, Business and Policy) degree program and the Executive Certificate in Space Leadership, Business and Policy. Both programs are taught by industry leaders and include the hands-on experience to ensure all participants leave with the skills and knowledge they need to lead successfully in the space sector.

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Thunderbird Clinical Professor Greg Autry

Greg Autry

Clinical Professor (FSC) and Director of the Thunderbird Initiative for Space Leadership, Policy, and Business

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