In April 2021, Russia announced a decision to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS), one of the most ambitious multinational space projects in the history of mankind. For over two decades the station has been hailed as a marvel of co-operation between different countries and their respective space agencies. Now, Russia said it is going to opt out of the project in 2025.

Roscosmos, Russia’s equivalent to NASA, still owns approximately a quarter of ISS, known as the Russian segment. It is responsible for navigation and control of the entire spacecraft, and without it, the station would not be able to function. The agency was also yet to launch station’s final component, the Nauka module, which is intended to provide the station with auxiliary power, additional airlock, engines and research equipment.

The exact date of its launch was a subject of speculation for two the last decade. And in early 2021 Roscosmos said it is not going to send Nauka to ISS at all. Instead, it would become the core of the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS), the new national space station set to start operations in 2030.

So, how did this happen? What was the reason behind the announcement? And, most importantly, will Russia succeed in its plan to create its own space station?

A change in discourse

The ROSS project is related to the ISS much like the former was linked with earlier Soviet space station proposals. Initially, the Russian ISS segment was intended to become the Mir 2, the Soviet Union’s ninth and largest station in orbit. But, in the 1990s, it was reworked to form part of the ISS because newly created Russia was unable to complete the project alone. Cooperation between the former Cold War rivals was also deemed essential.

According to Russian officials, there is no longer a reason to rely on cooperation with foreigners. Russia, with its extensive experience in building such structures, is more than capable of developing a space station on its own. Of course, this means that the ISS deal will be terminated. However, separation would not occur prematurely.

The unsustainability of the ISS has long been a topic in Russian space news. Famously, the station - or rather, its Russian segment - was experiencing a host of problems, including minor failures of every conceivable device from the toilets to life support systems. These issues finally came to a head when, in 2020, an air leak was discovered, which siphoned precious atmosphere out of the station at an alarming rate. The source of the leak evaded detection for several months. Detecting and fixing it took quite a lot of effort.

Then, in April 2021, three further minor cracks were discovered. While these were relatively easy to fix, it became clear that their source, metal fatigue, is becoming a serious issue.

According to Russia, ageing is at the root of the station’s problems. Initially, the structure’s life expectancy was intended to be just 15 years with a possibility to double that number. In 2015, the extension was approved with a dose of optimism. In 2018, the US confirmed a commitment to fund the station until 2030. In 2020, NASA announced that, from a technical standpoint, the station is cleared to operate till 2028. Until recently, Russia had echoed NASA’s statements.

But in late 2020, and following the issues with the air leak, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, said that the station was “already asking for a retirement”. Even more alarming was a remark by Vladimir Solovyev, CEO of Energia corporation, who said that the ISS is bound to experience an “avalanche-like” failure of its numerous systems after 2024.

Energia, a part of Roscosmos and the main manufacturer of Russian space-related equipment, promptly offered an alternative - a shiny new Russian space station. Rogozin also quipped that “if you want to make it right, make it yourself”, hinting that international cooperation was to blame for all ISS problems.

The replacement

Despite the catchphrases and the pretty 3D model that was revealed shortly after its announcement, the ROSS appears rather tame in comparison with other stations.

It would equal roughly two-thirds of the size of the current Russian segment at the ISS and consist of just five modules. Some are intended to be attached at a yet-undetermined date after 2030. The ROSS is also not intended for continuous habitation, with two to four cosmonauts visiting once or twice a year and only for short periods of time.

Nevertheless, the station will contain several interesting features, including the ability to replace even the core stages, which would, theoretically, allow it to serve indefinitely. Its orbit would also cruise the entire Russian territory (ISS’s orbit covers roughly 20% of that) and be better suited to observing deep space.

Initially, the idea appears like taking one step forward and two steps back. Afterall, in comparison with the ISS, ROSS would see vastly reduced Russian presence in space and even its advantages seem symbolic. But the station should also be noted as a companion piece to more ambitious projects – and Russia has several.

Firstly, there is the Chinese-Russian Moon landing program, which was announced in early 2021 shortly after Russia officially exited the international Lunar Gateway program. While its details still remain unclear, Rogozin assured that the ROSS would be a steppingstone for Moon exploration.

Secondly, is the ‘nuclear tug’ or the Transport and Energy Module (TEM), which is an ultra-ambitious project to build a platform that would zip around the solar system on some form of nuclear-powered drive and deliver spaceships to other planets with yet-unseen efficiency. In the words of Roscosmos, the ROSS would serve as a spaceport for the TEM, a project to be launched in the early 2030s.

Another project is the Orel, a new partially reusable spacecraft to replace the long-serving Soyuz. Also, Russia has been working on the new heavy versions of Angara rocket for some time now. Both Orel and Angara are crucial for the building of the ROSS and must be finalized by the time of its launch.

While this new space station is smaller and less ambitious than its predecessors, the Russian space program views the ROSS as an integral part of these new developments. But this also constitutes a huge problem and might be the main weakness of the project.

A dwindling budget

The Roscosmos budget is shrinking. While it has never been enormous, since 2015 the financial plan was reduced from $5 billion to slightly more than $2 billion. The Russian government does not plan to increase the budget and the preliminary figure for 2021, 2022 and 2023 cites the same $2 billion per year.

The main problem is that, while official announcements present the budget in US dollars, it’s actually calculated in Rubles: the currency that has been steadily losing value for decades. A sizable part (up to 80%, according to some accounts) of equipment for Russia’s space program is purchased from foreign manufacturers meaning that each time the value of the Ruble decreases, the purchasing power of Roscosmos follows.

So far, Russia has been spending approximately $500 million per year on the ISS and is its third largest supporter after NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to Rogozin, building the ROSS will cost the same amount of money as the country spends on ISS. However, it’s not clear if he was referring to the entire building process or after 2025 when Russia will no longer support the international station.

Independent assessments are less generous. Various Russian experts, including the ones from Roscosmos, informally tally the total cost of the ROSS between $5 billion and $13 billion. The larger approximation exceeds the entire estimated budget of Roscosmos from now until 2030.

On one hand, the ROSS would use much of the infrastructure and processes honed for the ISS, which would make it a much cheaper and easier project than, say, the Lunar Gateway or the Chinese Tiangong space station. But on the other hand, as small as it is, the station might be too big for Russia and its shrinking space budget. Especially considering that in March 2021 Roscosmos changed their mind regarding the Nauka - it was deemed to old to become a part of the ROSS, meaning that the station would need all of its modules to be built from scratch.

It should be noted that Russia has a habit of dropping similarly ambitious projects shortly after their announcement. Since the mid-2000s, the country has been toying with the idea of creating a new space station under the name of Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEC). Initially, it was supposed to be a companion to the ISS with an emphasis on deep space exploration alongside the assembly and launch of interplanetary vehicles. In 2014, Roscosmos had announced plans to exit the ISS program by 2026 and make OPSEC its main space station. Several years later those were dropped, along with the entire OPSEC, as the new Lunar orbital station became more important. An idea to build it has been a top priority since 2007, even as the Lunar Gateway was being actively debated, and the national Lunar station was only abandoned when Russia announced its commitment to the ROSS and the Chinese program.

So, in 2015, Russia had a whole lineup of large spacecraft planned. It was working on its own space station (OPSEC), as well as national Lunar orbital station, and the TEM “nuclear tug”, while pledging to maintain its ISS segment for over a decade. These plans were supposed to be launched ‘shortly’ and it soon became quite clear that only one of the multitude of developments would reach fruition. It turned out that the successful project was the ISS. 

Currently, the situation is similar, albeit a bit smaller in scope. The budget has been halved and Russia will once again find itself in a position where it must choose between the TEM, the lunar program and the ROSS. It is possible that the least ambitious project will be picked, especially if the Ruble keeps depreciating.

So, while there is still a chance that we will witness a new space station at the beginning of the next decade, several difficult and complex choices will have to be made for that to happen.