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Space Station Custody Battle: What Happens if Russia Departs from the ISS Programme?

The fallout following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have firmly put to rest notions of post-Cold War internationalism between the Russian Federation and NATO powers. Great powers have become unabashedly hostile in their dealings with one another, and liberal institutions worldwide are faltering. Nowhere is the death of internationalism better represented than the uncertain and increasingly precarious future of the International Space Station. Once a symbol of rapprochement between the United States and Russia following the Cold War, it has been drawn into the conflict, not caught in physical but trapped by the logistical impossibility of multilateral cooperation with a rogue state that considers itself unbeholden to international law.


Russian Withdrawal from the ISS Programme


On July 26, 2022, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced its decision to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS), with the stated intention of constructing their own space station. While the fate of the space station had been in doubt ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of that year- tensions between Russia and the West have been at their worst since the ISS programme’s inception in 1993- this comment prompted many to speculate about what this announcement would translate into for day-to-day operation of the space station.

The United States and its international partners in Europe, Canada, and Japan, all plan to continue operating the space station until 2030. Given the symbiotic relationship between the station’s component modules launched by each country- the Russian modules provide thrust to prevent the station’s orbit from decaying while the American modules are responsible for most of the electrical power- the consequences of Russia’s withdrawal from the program represent a mechanical conundrum as well as a diplomatic and legal one.


The ISS’ Organizational Framework


While the International Space Station is, on paper, a joint venture between fifteen participant countries, the majority of the construction and maintenance of the station is the work of the United States and Russia, and their respective space agencies, NASA and Roscosmos. After the collapse of the USSR, a series of joint orbital scientific missions between the two agencies prompted hopes in the Clinton Administration that long-term cooperation between the former rivals could foster closer ties while reducing the overall cost of space-based research. In fact, much of the hardware involved in the final design was the result of merging NASA’s Space Station Freedom design with that of Roscosmos’ Mir 2.


However, despite the veneer of internationalism which characterized official statements about the ISS, international rivalries have always played a role in shaping its missions. The United States has repeatedly vetoed attempts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to join the program due to security concerns, and Public Law 112–10, Sec. 1340, otherwise known as the Wolf Amendment, prohibits NASA from participating in bilateral programs with Chinese organizations. The PRC has subsequently constructed its own space station; the Tiangong.


In 1998, the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement established a cooperative framework for the ongoing maintenance and operation of the ISS. This included a liability waiver which would ban any member state space agency or contractor from suing another partner or related entity. Subsequent agreements further detailed provisions for financial responsibility and legal liability between signatory space agencies. Each member state is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the modules which it provided to the programme as well as having legal jurisdiction over its modules, as though it were an extension of its territory on Earth. All signatory nations are further bound by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1968 Rescue Agreement, as well as several subsequent agreements related to crew conduct and legal liabilities during ISS operations.


The result of these multilateral agreements had, until recently, been a coordinated programme of research which has allowed the station to operate with a continuous human presence since November 2000; over 251 astronauts from 19 countries have visited or lived on the station. However, the recent statements by Roscosmos may prove to be cause for an invocation of Article 28 of the 1998 Agreement, which states that:


Any Partner State may withdraw from this Agreement at any time by giving to the

Depositary at least one year's prior written notice… If a Partner gives notice of withdrawal from this Agreement, with a view toward ensuring the continuation of the overall program, the Partners shall endeavor to reach agreement concerning the terms and conditions of that Partner's withdrawal before the effective date of withdrawal….”


Using Canada as a hypothetical example of a partner seeking to withdraw from the ISS, Article 28:3 states that:


“Because Canada's contribution is an essential part of the Space Station, upon its

withdrawal, Canada shall ensure the effective use and operation by the United States

of the Canadian elements listed in the Annex. To this end, Canada shall expeditiously

provide hardware, drawings, documentation, software, spares, tooling, special test

equipment, and/or any other necessary items requested by the United States.”


Subsequent sections of Article 28 state that:


“Withdrawal by any Partner State shall not affect that Partner State's continuing rights and obligations under Articles 16, 17, and 19, unless otherwise agreed in a withdrawal agreement pursuant to paragraph 2 or 3 above.”


In theory, any attempt to withdraw would be subject to stringent negotiations between Russia and the other international partners in the ISS Programme, during which it would be obligated to continue to maintain its components of the space station.



Russia’s Threats Against the ISS


International law about space station operation prescribes few solutions, however, for the recent atmosphere of hostilities and open aggression which have characterized space relations between the US and Russia in the last year.


The imposition of strict economic sanctions on Russia by a diverse collection of countries, including historically neutral Switzerland, has had an immediate and devastating effect upon the Russian economy. In response to this, Roscosmos’ controversial former director Dmitry Rogozin took to Twitter last February to threaten the safety of the International Space Station, asking, without the cooperation of Russia, “who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” This was accompanied by Rogozin tweeting an edited video showing Russian crewmembers abandoning American astronaut Mark Van de Hei in space and detaching the Russian Orbital Segment from the rest of the space station.


As the ISS is situated in Low Earth Orbit, it requires occasional adjustment rocket burns to maintain its freefall and avoid falling into Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. Russia’s unmanned Progress resupply ships and Zvezda module currently perform these crucial tasks. Unlike the dynamic between the UK and EU during Brexit, any negotiations to exit the ISS would take place in the knowledge that Russian components are essential to the continued operation of the ISS.


Van de Hei subsequently returned to Earth safely and Rogozin has subsequently been ousted as head of Roscosmos. However, the post-Cold War cooperation which once characterized the ISS partnership is no more.


Conclusion


No final decisions have yet been made about the fate of the ISS. The head of Roscosmos, Yury Borisov, later backtracked last September, and stated that Russia would remain in the program until 2028- much closer to NASA’s planned 2030 retirement date for the station. Rogozin’s hopes that the Russian Orbital Segment could be detached and used as its own space station seem increasingly out of touch with reality, as it includes seven essential components which cannot simply be removed from the rest of the station- at least not without time-consuming and costly preparations. Additionally, because it was funded by the US, Russia does not legally own the Zarya module it designed and built.


Given the complex nature of the negotiations which would need to be entered into before it would even become mechanically possible for Russia to remove their ISS modules, it is unlikely that there would be a viable path for Russia to physically leave before the space station’s 2030 retirement. While it is technically possible that NASA could use new vehicles like Northrop Grumman’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to perform the re-boost rocket burns in place of Russian modules, the ISS is old, and the space agency has other plans for its crewed spaceflight agenda, including an array of privately owned space stations in low earth orbit, a return to the moon, and even a space station orbiting the moon. Roscosmos is conspicuously absent from the list of international partners who are involved in these projects.


While international law and diplomacy have staved off final decisions about the fate of the ISS for another few years, the emerging privatized space market may necessitate the establishment of legal institutions and specialized lawyers to specifically deal with issues around the contestation of corporate assets in space.


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