The competition heats up: Russian space managers have confirmed that they have endorsed a plan to leave ISS in 2024, when they will assemble their own space station using new modules as well as a significant number of the modules attached to ISS.
On February 24, 2015, the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, at Roskosmos, the main planning body at the agency led by a newly appointed chairman and the former head of the agency Yuri Koptev, formally endorsed the Russian participation in the ISS program until 2024. It would be followed by the separation of Russia’s newest modules from the ISS to form the new national space station. As previously reported on this site, the initial configuration of the station would include the Multi-purpose Module, MLM, the Node Module, UM, and the Science and Power Module, NEM. Notably, the original Russian ISS component — the Zvezda Service Module, SM — was not included in the plan, thus ensuring that its propulsion capabilities would be available for deorbiting of the outpost at the end of its operational life.
Whether ISS will be functional with just the Russian Zvezda module is not clear. NASA engineers now have about a decade to figure this out and to fix it.
In general the break up of the partnership running ISS will be good for space exploration. The competition between nations will spur development and innovation. It will also free each nation from the shackles of the partnership. The Russians in particular have wanted to utilize ISS for more daring and longer expeditions to research interplanetary travel, and were stymied by NASA’s bureaucracy. Once they start doing this sort of thing on their own station NASA will feel obliged to follow.
Obviously, competition between nations carries risk. As long as there is some agreed to framework for claiming territory on other planets (something that the U.N. treaty does not allow), the nations will be able to compete peacefully. Without that framework, however, will leave room for disagreement and conflict.
It is thus essential that the space-faring nations sit down and work out this framework, and do it as soon as possible before each nation has vested interests in space that are already in conflict with each other. Above all, this new framework has got to abandon the U.N. space treaty with its rules that forbid the claiming and controlling of territory by nations in space. Those rules were never realistic, and literally guarantee that nations will eventually end up at war with each other as they fight to determine who owns what in space.