The International Space Station, which orbits 248 miles above Earth,  in what is called low-Earth orbit. Its long success as an international collaboration has been tested by the Ukraine war. (NASA)

Late last month, it appeared that Russian participation in the International Space Station would end in 2024 — or so seemed to say the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos  Thirty years of unusual and successful cooperation would be coming to a close as the Ukraine war appeared to make longer-term commitments impossible, or undesirable for the Russian side.

But on a day when the Ukraine war raged for its 163rd day, when new Western sanctions were being put into place, when a Russian judge gave WNBA star Brittney Griner a provocative 9-year prison term for carrying small amounts of cannabis oil as she left Moscow, and just a short time after what seemed to be the Russian announcement of that 2024 departure,  NASA officials held a commodious press conference with Roscosmos Executive Director for Human Space Programs Sergei Krikalev and others involved with the ISS.

Together they spoke yesterday (August 4) of expanding American-Russian cooperation on the mission and discounted talk of a 2024 Russian exit.

“We always talk of spaceflight as being team support,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations, which oversees the ISS. “And this news conference will exemplify how it is a team sport.”

She then discussed  how and why a Russian cosmonaut would soon take a SpaceX flight to the ISS as part of a new program under which Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts can fly on each other’s ISS-and-homeward-bound spacecraft.  The flight by veteran cosmonaut Anna Kikina will mark the first time a Russian has flown on an American spacecraft.

In the press conference, Krikalev then insisted that Russia had no intention of leaving the station in 2024 but rather would begin looking at the logistics of departing at that time — with an eye to leaving for their own planned space station in the years ahead.

“As far as the statement for 2024, perhaps something was lost in translation,” he said. “The statement actually said Russia will not pull out until after 2024.  That may be in 2025, 2028 or 2030.”   He said the timetable “will depend on the technical condition of the station.”

In the good-natured spirit of the press conference, Krikalev said that he was “happy to see so many faces I’ve known for many years.”  He also said that “cooperation is very important in a program like this.”

 

Cosmonaut Anna Kikina training at Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia.  She has also been training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to prepare for her unprecedented ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft this fall. (Roscosmos)

That the issue of ongoing cooperation between the U.S., Russia and other participating nations on the ISS has been fraught since Russia invaded Ukraine is hardly surprising.  The animosity and chill caused by the Ukraine invasion has spread to almost every part of the U.S.-Russian relationship and appeared to be coming to the space station — which was initially conceived in the 1990s as a way to enhance relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In April, then-Russian space agency leader Dmitry Rogozin said that he had submitted a proposal to his government  urging the Russian government to leave the space station, in protest of the Western economic sanctions against Russia.

Soon after, when the European Space Agency formally pulled out of a collaboration with Russia on sending a robotic rover to Mars, Rogozin said Russian astronauts on the space station would stop using a robotic arm built by the Europeans and insulted Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the European Space agency.

“I, in turn, give a command to our crew on the ISS to stop working with the European ERA manipulator,” Rogozin wrote on his Telegram channel.

Several months later, three Russian cosmonauts were photographed holding the flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, two breakaway and Russian-supported sections of eastern Ukraine at the heart of the war.  The cosmonauts also congratulated fighters on “liberating” the entirety of the Luhansk People’s Republic.

The NASA reaction was swift:

“NASA strongly rebukes Russia using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine,” NASA said in a release. “(It) is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes.”

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov pose with a flag of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic at the International Space Station.  The political display was unprecedented. (Roscosmos/Reuters)

But in mid-July, Russian president Vladimir V. Putin signed a decree dismissing Rogozin, who had led Roscosmos since 2016.  The cosmonauts who displayed the flags remain on the station but the tone of life on the ISS changed significantly

The new Roscosmos director, Yuri Borisov,  actually apologized for the politicizing of ISS affairs.

“The ISS project has enriched world science in the field of knowledge about the universe and the Earth, has given all participants in this process new knowledge, and has united us to some extent,” he said in an interview. ” I believe that both today and in the future, such projects should be out of politics.”

“I am very sorry that sometimes in this difficult time our joint projects in space, which are of interest to all mankind, begin to give a political coloring. It is not right.”

Blue Origin’s “Orbital Reef” low Earth orbit space station, in development with Sierra Space, is expected to be operational in the second half of the 2020s. It will ultimately be almost the size of the ISS and will potentially be used for onward space flight, science and tourism. (Blue Origin)

As described in the press conference, the U.S. has taken steps to keep the space station in orbit until 2030.  According to Lueders, approval has been granted by Congress and the plan is awaiting a formal, final White House decision.

NASA sought the extension because the ISS is considered essential for learning about the effects of long-term stays in space, for future missions to more distant points and for scientific efforts of all sorts.

Meanwhile, NASA has sought to spur the development of commercial space stations.

To spur that commercial development, NASA late last year approved $416 million in Space Act Agreement to three companies – – Blue Origin, Nanoracks LLC, and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation.

Kathy Lueders is the associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, overseeing the ISS, the Commercial LEO Development Program, operations of crewed Artemis missions and more. (NASA)

NASA’s goal is to get the space stations into orbit before the end of the ISS mission, and in that way remain active in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

After it is emptied the space station will be “de-orbited” in January, 2031.  It’s orbit will gradually be lowered until the football-field size facility falls into the Pacific Ocean.

After that, NASA will buy whatever human spaceflight services it needs in low Earth orbit  from companies expected to be operating their own space stations by then.

This American plan for space station development comes as other nations send up their own space stations as well.

China has already launched two modules of its own space station, “Tiangong” or “Palace in the Sky,” and plans to expand it to about one-fifth of the mass of the ISS.  That about the size of the decommissioned Russian Mir space station which orbited from 1986 to 2001.  Three Chinese “taikonauts” are now onboard.

The planned Russian space station, named Russian Orbital Space Station or ROSS, will be operated entirely by Roscosmos.  Launches are planned to  starting in the mid-2020s and the  first crewed mission is currently planned for 2026.

The Bartolomeo platform, named after the younger brother of Christopher Columbus, was launched to the ISS in 2020. Built by Airbus DS together with its partner Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville, Alabama, it provides an external platform to conduct experiments, including how organisms fare in space. (ESA)

Since this column often focuses on astrobiology or the search for life beyond Earth (and how life began on Earth), a look at space stations seemed to be a good opportunity to talk about astrobiology on the ISS, and future astrobiology elsewhere in LEO.

One of the many scientific goals of ISS science is to get a better sense of whether simple organisms can — and perhaps did — travel from other bodies to Earth.  This is the field of “panspermia,” the study of the possible spread of life through space.

Thanks to a number of externally-mounted facilities outside the station, researchers know just how rough it is by analyzing organic samples exposed to solar and cosmic radiation over time.

A number of bacteria, seeds, lichens and algae have been repeatedly frozen, thawed, vacuum-dried and exposed to radiation for months. The samples endured temperature extreme temperature swings, crossing the freezing point 569 times as they orbited Earth during multiple six-month missions.

Researchers have already found life that can survive spaceflight. Both lichen and small organisms called tardigrades or ‘water bears’ spent months attached outside the ISS and returned alive to Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and ISS partners are taking exobiology research (as Europeans refer to astrobiology) to the next level with the exobiology facility that was installed last year on the new Bartolomeo platform outside the European Columbus module on the space station.

The first payload mission is ESA’s Exobiology Platform (EXPO,) a facility that will carry a set of radiation experiments aimed at better understanding the evolution of organic molecules and organisms in the space.

While this kind of research has already shown that some life forms and some organic compounds can maintain themselves in LEO,  ongoing research is pushing further into the possibilities of panspermia and whether life can spread from one planet to another, or even between star systems. It seems possible that organisms could colonize planets by hitching rides on asteroids.

NASA’s Space Biology Program on the ISS also solicits and conducts research using the space environment accessible on the ISS to understand better how gravity (or zero gravity) affects the design and function of living organisms and to understand how biological systems accommodate to spaceflight conditions.

With their ability to observe the Earth on a grand scale, their zero-gravity environments that allow both unique science experiments and the study of human reactions to life in space, their ability to expose simple life to the extremes of space, and their future role as way stations for crews going on further into space, space stations are clearly in increasingly high demand.

Even if global politics sometimes intrude.