We must disengage Russia from the International Space Station partnership

The International Space Station (ISS) partnership has survived trying times over the years. During my last spaceflight in 2014 to 2015, Russia annexed Crimea, started a civil war in Ukraine, shot down a civilian airliner, and the West imposed sanctions. The ISS was the sole bright spot while relations between the West and Russia sank to their lowest levels since the Cold War — until now.

The invasion of Ukraine is in its fifth month, yet the ISS partnership continues to function as it has for more than two decades. Crews are training. Flight controllers are monitoring vehicle systems. Managers are planning, allocating and negotiating. Engineers are designing. Rockets are launching. Government money is being spent. We have kept our heads down (some may say buried them in the sand) and pressed on with the work at hand.

But the picture is not all rosy. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), has become unhinged. He has tweeted not-so-veiled threats against NASA and the West, bragging that Roscosmos is making nuclear weapons that could be used against us. He has threatened to leave American astronauts stranded in space. He has threatened to de-orbit the ISS so that it falls onto our territory.

Much worse than these juvenile ramblings (if threats of nuclear war are juvenile) is the actual war that Russia is waging in Europe. They have killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians. They have intentionally targeted civilians (also known as war crimes). They have senselessly destroyed hundreds of billions of dollars of property.

This is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s country in 2022 — a terrorist state, and our partner on the International Space Station.

It’s important to understand the very real support for this war that’s come from the Russian space program, beyond Rogozin’s tweets. Several cosmonauts, including three that I flew with in space, are in the Duma (Russia’s Congress) and they’ve actively supported Putin and the war. The same cosmonauts who arrived at the ISS in March wearing bright yellow and blue flight suits (their alma mater colors, not in support of Ukraine) recently released a photo of them holding the flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic onboard the ISS. A blatant symbol of the occupation of eastern Ukraine — and an apparent declaration of support for the war.

These issues bring up a very relevant question: What benefit is there in having Russia in the ISS partnership, if they are going to use it to support Putin’s war and threaten Europe and the U.S. with nuclear attacks? The ISS is supposed to be a symbol of peace and unity, but Russia has chosen to use it as a propaganda tool for aggression. We haven’t allowed China to join the ISS partnership because of their egregious authoritarian record on human rights and intellectual property theft. It’s clear that if we were starting from scratch, Putin’s Russia would not be invited to be a partner in any new space initiative, but the ISS partnership was begun 30 years ago, and we need to play the hand we’ve been dealt.

So, what to do? I believe that we should have two guiding principles going forward. First, we should begin the process of disengaging Russia from the ISS partnership. Second, we should minimize the impact this disengagement will cause to the U.S. and other partner nations, who have invested a tremendous amount of time and money into the space station.

How do we thread that needle? It’s not as simple as merely kicking Russia off of the ISS. Because of a decision made 20 years ago, the Russian segment has the only significant thrusters on the station, and those are required for control of the vehicle. If the ISS is going to continue to fly, and I believe it should, it will need these small rockets to maintain its attitude control as well as keep it in the proper orbit. Therefore, NASA should prioritize building its own new control module within a year, eliminating our dependence on Russian thrusters.

We should also immediately limit cooperation on the ISS to the absolute minimum required for the safe operation of the ISS. Our crews should limit training in Russia to basic emergency procedure familiarization, and their crews should be similarly limited in Houston. We should stop launching astronauts on their Soyuz spacecraft and cosmonauts should not fly on SpaceX or Boeing capsules. Crews in space should stop performing science experiments or helping with maintenance on the other segment, limiting interaction between astronauts and Russian cosmonauts on the ISS to operational necessity.

These steps may sound draconian. This is certainly not the best way to run a space partnership. But Putin has crossed the line down here on Earth, and his cosmonauts have crossed the line in space. We cannot continue business as usual on the ISS while Russia uses it as a propaganda tool to support killing thousands of innocent Ukrainians and causing global economic devastation. To keep things in perspective, Putin has essentially brought Europe back to 1941. Would the Allies have tolerated a joint project of Arctic exploration with (even well-intentioned) German scientists supportive of Germany’s war footing in 1941?

The costs of our partnership with Russia on the ISS are now unfortunately much higher than the few remaining benefits. I truly hope that we will someday return to cooperation in a post-Putin Russia, but for now, NASA and other partner nations must make the tough decision to begin the process of disengagement. The world is watching.

Cmdr. Terry Virts is a former NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force test pilot, having spent over seven months in space as pilot of the space shuttle Endeavour and commander of the ISS. He is only one of four astronauts ever to pilot a shuttle, fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket, conduct spacewalks and be commander of the International Space Station. He is currently an entrepreneur, and he is the author of “How to Astronaut” and “View from Above.” Follow him on Twitter: @AstroTerry

Tags Russia Space Technology Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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