It hasn’t even been a year since Russia threatened to take their ISS toys and go home, but now they seem strangely delighted by a space station-invitation from NASA that NASA doesn’t recall ever making. Why would they be so wildly eager to work with us on a new station if they were just talking about breaking up?
The answer, I think, is pretty simple: they’re all talk. They really aren’t in a position to make and run the sort of space station they want on their own. At least not anytime soon.
Let’s back up a bit and go over what happened: this story from the Russia Times on Saturday quoted Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov saying at a news conference:
“We have agreed that Roscosmos and NASA will be working together on the program of a future space station.”
The problem is, NASA doesn’t remember making any such agreement to build a new space station with Russia. Sure, NASA is very pleased they and Russia agreed to extend the ISS’s service life out to 2024 (as opposed to 2020, when Russia initially said they would be removing their modules and pulling out) but beyond that NASA has no firm plans for a follow-up station, hoping to move that (and most Earth-orbital operations) to the private sector.
So, why, exactly, did the Russians say we’re collaborating with them on a new station? Especially when you consider how belligerent and confrontational they were being about our joint space exploration recently?
I think the reason is simple, grim reality. Russia had talked about a plan to build their next-generation station based on the components of the Russian segment of the ISS. The problem is, the Russian segment of the ISS is a pale shadow of what it was originally intended to be. The original Russian segment came from their designs for Mir 2, and included many more modules, including laboratory modules and an independent, large-scale solar power array.
The reality of the Russian segment is far more modest: two larger modules (one actually owned by the US), and three smaller docking/airlock/stowage modules. There’s no dedicated laboratories, no solar power facilities beyond the four panels between Zevezda and Zarya, and, really, not too much of anything. Well, it does have a crapload of docking ports, so you could have a bunch of Soyuz crew ferries and Progress freighters docked, in case you wanted to, you know, throw a big space party.
Taken alone, it would be a far less capable station than the Mir was even as far back as the early-to-mid 1990s. The more ambitious laboratory modules and the Russian solar power array have been on the books for years, but never managed to get funded or built. I don’t think they have in the intervening years, and when Roscosmos really looked at what an independent Russian station would be, they saw a sad, aging little echo of their glory days in the 1990s.
As far as I can tell, the Russian announcement must be a way to save face. The idea that Russia will be magnanimous and help the Americans with a new space station is a much better sell than Russian modules undock from ISS, and drift aimlessly as bored Cosmonauts bounce around inside, wondering why the idiots in charge wouldn’t let them just keep doing good work on the full ISS with their former partners.
The sad thing is that Russia still has some of the best long-term spaceflight experience of anyone, and they’re still the pioneers of space stations, period. They beat us to a long-term space station with Salyut 1, and they’ve maintained a nearly continuous presence in space since then. Their actual Cosmonauts and scientists would be some of the best partners NASA could ask for regarding any long-term space flight, including a mission to Mars.
Too bad about the people in charge, though.