Russia offers to take over ISS if US exits


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How kind of them! Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, told journalists today that Russia has formulated a proposal to take over ISS operations completely should the U.S. withdraw from the station.

“This is Roscosmos’ proposal. We believe that we can keep the station in case the Americans decide to withdraw from this project, through other countries and partners. We have technological and technical capabilities to keep the station on the orbit and fully provide both electric energy and water there,” Rogozin said.

Roscosmos’ director general explained that the Russian section may add new modules on the basis of the Science-Power Module (SPM), the first version of which will be launched to the station in 2022. “Here the Russian Federation has a unique opportunity. We can duplicate the SPM. Its design makes it possible to turn into home for other states – there can be the SPM-2, SPM-3, SPM-4, they may grow further, extending the international part of the station. We formulated this proposal, and we suggest our new partners doing it,” Rogozin said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text reveals Russia’s real goal. They take over station operations, and then sell to other nations modules for the station. Does the UAE want its own space station manned program? Buy a Russian-built module of your own, get it attached to ISS, and “Voila!” you have a very sophisticated and relatively permanent in-space facility all your own. And Russia will provide you the manned ferrying services!

This idea makes great sense. The Russians could even do it should the U.S. stick with ISS. It allows them to offer something far superior to the private, small, and short-lived separate station modules that a variety of private American companies are developing and offering for purchase or rent.

Of course, NASA could do the same, by allowing our private companies to attach modules of their own to ISS, for their own purposes. Historically, however, NASA’s management has been hostile to private enterprise, and in the past has frequently acted to oppose independent commercial activities on ISS. For example, when Russians wanted to fly Dennis Tito to ISS NASA strongly opposed this, and tried to stop it.

NASA has been changing in the past decades, however, so it could be that if the Russians push this hard, the competition could help the factions in NASA who are favor of private and free competition gain control of station management.

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5 comments

  • Andrew_W

    The US government getting itself rid of it’s commitments to the ISS would be fantastic for the US, second only to it getting rid of commitments to the SLS. May sanity eventually prevail.

  • wodun

    Let them, as soon as we have private stations operating. It would make them dependent on an American supply chain and they wouldn’t be able to compete on price with our private sector alternatives.

  • Chris Lopes

    “when Russians wanted to fly Dennis Tito to ISS NASA strongly opposed this, and tried to stop it.”

    That’s putting it mildly. They actually went ape poo crazy. Tito was the harbinger of Space Apocalypse. There was no telling what awful, horrible things would happen if you let an unclean, unanointed being on board such a pure and sanctified heavenly body. It was not their finest hour.

  • Matt in AZ

    I’m going to have to file away “ape poo crazy” for future personal use!

  • Edward

    My vision of the future for space stations has included private, small, and separate (independent) orbital habitats, such as Axiom, Bigelow, and Ixion are developing. Their ability to compete with ISS depends upon a low cost of placing the habitats into orbit (construction and launch costs) and a low cost of operating them.

    Robert notes that as a large station, ISS has communal resources that each of the smaller habitats would have to have. This gives an added advantage to the Russian proposal, as their new modules can be more minimalist than any of the currently proposed independent habitats.

    I had envisioned the commercial habitats as having the advantage of not dealing with NASA’s bureaucracy, one problem being that NASA requires experimental data become public domain after only five years. With advantages like this, I believed that commercial habitats could survive even with the ISS still in place. However, with the Russian plan, independent commercial habitats could have a serious problem surviving, much less thriving. Even if NASA allowed our private companies to attach modules of their own to ISS, they would be back to dealing with NASA’s bureaucracy, eliminating that advantage.

    I have envisioned that the anchor tenants of the early independent habitats being some of the emerging national space programs, such as United Arab Emirates. The Russian proposal may prevent these potential tenants from choosing the commercial independent habitats in favor of the Russian SPM modules at ISS.

    The following commentary discusses commercializing space, including manned space:
    https://spacenews.com/op-ed-commercializing-space-before-a-commercial-leo-market-can-flourish-the-iss-must-be-retired/
    (George Sowers is one of the people in the ULA Cislunar 1000 YouTube that I often link)

    Before a commercial LEO market can flourish, the ISS must be retired. This is for a couple of reasons. First, the commercial stations need NASA and ESA and the other top tier space agencies as anchor customers. These agencies won’t invest or even buy time on a commercial station so long as they continue to sink money into the ISS. Second, companies cannot compete with countries. As long as the ISS is in orbit, it is a direct competitor to any commercial station.

    Sowers sees the end of the ISS as opening up commercial space habitats with demand from the current fourteen ISS participants (from the TASS article: “Russia, Canada, the US, Japan and 10 member states of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Switzerland and Sweden)“). The demand from these fourteen space agencies would allow for the new commercial space to thrive, and would help to drive ULA’s Cislunar 1000 vision rapidly toward its 15-year objective of the 30-year goal.

    The Russian proposal makes the commercialization of space much harder than it would be otherwise. Commercialization would have to follow Russia’s rules rather than each company establishing its own rules, which can be responsive to their customers’s needs, not to the Russians’s needs.

    I have to wonder what happens when the ISS eventually gives up the ghost and none of the attached private modules can operate on their own, making them virtually useless without the ISS to provide support services. Would there be enough independent commercial habitats to keep up with the space research demand once the ISS fails on orbit?

    A major problem with ISS competing with independent commercial habitats is that ISS is severely subsidized. The cost of doing experiments there does not include an amortization of the development, construction, and operational costs of the station. Otherwise each on board experiment would cost multiple millions of dollars to perform.

    In addition, the Russians seem to take safety and maintenance lightly. Accidents at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Mir space station, and the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydro power station do not give me confidence that Russia has developed a culture of operating equipment in a safe way. The reliability of their new space hardware is deteriorating over time, as their quality control fails more and more often, adding to my concern that they are not the right ones to operate space hardware for international teams or commercial operators.

    I prefer Russia’s previous proposal for their own space station: demate their current modules when ISS is decommissioned, and run their own independent station, adding new modules as necessary. Instead, they propose to use the entire ISS as their own space station, despite its cost having mostly been from the American taxpayer. This proposal gives them a whole lot of free stuff — and already on orbit.

    The Russians are proposing the most subsidized project in all of history. The U.S. gave Russia much of the money that it used to make and launch their current ISS modules (their current section is heavily subsidized by the American taxpayer), and they hope to take over the immensely expensive American section, along with the other member modules, such as Japan’s Kibo, ESA’s Columbus, and Italy’s Tranquility. What a boon for Russia, a free football-field sized space station, free for the taking. It helps me to believe that they already think of it as theirs, since they are the only ones currently capable of getting there (they already have said that without them the U.S. needs a trampoline to get there).

    To the Russians, this certainly makes great sense, but to we American taxpayers, we’ll be out a whole lot of treasure for the Russians’s benefit.

    From the Sowers commentary:

    Unfortunately, there are very powerful forces that will try to keep the ISS going as long as possible. Crony capitalism will always be one of the greatest enemies to the free market.

    For those of us who hope for commercial independent space habitats to compete with ISS, this is a terrible idea.

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