The International Space Station as photographed by the departing STS-132 crew on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010. Image credit: NASA

Apr 26, 2015 The future of the International Space Station

Sen—Given all the current discord and frosty relations in the western world’s dealings with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin since last year’s annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing deadly war in Ukraine between separatists and the Ukrainian government, many space watchers have wondered about the fate of the International Space Station (ISS) and the state of space station relations between the US and Russia.

“We are working extremely well with our Russian partners,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA HQ, Washington D.C., told Sen. “The cooperation between the two countries from an engineering standpoint is absolutely phenomenal!”

Tensions with Russia regarding actions in Ukraine date back a year to the spring of 2014. The ISS can only function based on the continuing and essential 24/7 cooperation of the multinational partnership  that keeps the outpost afloat and running to conduct the science for which it was built.

“We both want to be in space together. We are very compatible in our goals and objectives [between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency],” Gerstenmaier elaborated. “The ISS has been exempted from US government restrictions.”

Russian participation and crew launches are critical to the station's operation. And the station is central to NASA’s grand scheme and strategic goal of sending human expeditions to Mars.

“The space station is an amazing facility and will help us get humans to Mars.”

“We just did a Soyuz launch a few weeks ago. The new [Russian/American] crew is now in orbit. And they are now aboard station and very busy with science activities.”

The Russian Soyuz capsule launches four times per year to the station with international crews from the partner nations. Manned Soyuz spacecraft are the only path for a ride to space for anyone following the forced retirement of the US Space Shuttle program after its final flight on the STS-135 mission in July 2011.  

“Scott Kelly [our NASA astronaut] just launched to the space station for the one year mission, with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. We at NASA have not done a one year mission. It’s the longest mission ever assigned to a US astronaut. We have done a lot of six month missions.”

Russia has some experience with yearlong Earth orbital missions dating back to the Mir Space Station of the Soviet era.

“The Russians did a few one year missions in the past [on Mir]. But they didn’t really capture all the medical data back then that we want to capture now with the one year mission,” said Gerstenmaier.

To date, four Russian cosmonauts have spent a year or more on Russia’s Mir space station during the 1980s and 1990s. But there have been significant advances in medical technology since then and no one has stayed for a year on the ISS. So NASA and Roscosmos are looking for differences compared to the normal six month missions and how it will aid plans for transporting humans to Mars and back.

“This is really a great chance for us to capture data. And really understand and see if there is anything that happens from the standpoint of the human body that we may have missed. And if there are any concerns for when we go beyond the 180 days.”

A roundtrip mission to Mars will last about three years. “We don’t think there are any problems. But as you know when you actually go do it, things may not always work out so well as expected.”

Construction of the ISS began in 1998 as a partnership between five space agency’s from the US, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan. All the partner countries have contributed significant funding for two decades and an array of contributions in the form of hardware, modules, science experiments, gear and cargo resupply or crew launches. This cooperation has enabled continuous on orbit occupation by astronauts and cosmonauts for 15 years since November 2000.

In that time, more than 200 people from 15 countries have visited the orbiting laboratory.

The ISS is the most complex and expensive international project ever accomplished. The station has been nominated for the Nobel Prize as a model of peaceful international cooperation unlike anything else in the history of humankind.

It functions as a microgravity laboratory in low Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of about 400 kilometers (250 miles) and is currently home to an international crew of six people. They orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.

The US recently extended its ISS support and funding commitment to 2024 from 2020. Gerstenmaier was instrumental as a member of the NASA team able to obtain that extension from the Obama Administration in 2014.

Canada has also now formally agreed to continue its ISS support and funding to 2024. Japan and ESA have not yet formally announced their decisions.

What about Russian participation beyond 2020? There is an agreement in principle for Russia to remain involved with the ISS until 2024, but thereafter Russia could build their own station.

“We are discussing,” said Gerstenmaier, preferring to remain noncommittal. He indicated that some public announcement clarifying Russia’s future role with the ISS in the next decade may be forthcoming at a future date.

Yuri Koptev, chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council (NTS) of the Russian space agency, told journalists in March: "We have a very preliminary request from our American colleagues: let's consider 2027 (for the end of the ISS mission). However these (plans) had not been reviewed in detail and today even for 2024 we have a lot of uncertainty starting with technical and ending with political issues." 

Meanwhile, NASA HQ Public Affairs stated in an email to Sen: "We are pleased Roscomos wants to continue full use of the International Space Station through 2024—a priority of ours—and expressed interest in continuing international cooperation for human space exploration beyond that.”