A Potential Russian Reduction in ISS Could Imperil U.S. Commercial Progress

Vladimir Putin Arrives For an October Inspection of Vostochny Spaceport Credit: President's office/TASS

Vladimir Putin Arrives For an October Inspection of Vostochny Spaceport
Credit: President’s office/TASS

Today, two NASA astronauts on the International Space Station installed the International Docking Adapter which was carried to orbit in the trunk of the SpaceX CRS-9 Dragon capsule.

With the first of two IDA’s now in place, the Station will be ready to receive U.S. Commercial Crew missions, which could begin with a test flight by SpaceX as early as the end of next year. A few months after that, Boeing should be ready to mount its test flight as well, as both companies inaugurate a new era of competitive commercial spaceflight to LEO offering highly redundant, completely dissimilar systems.

If all goes well, it won’t be too much longer before Sierra Nevada Corporation joins the party with an automated version of the Dream Chaser space plane which can utilize the IDA as well as berthing ports in its role as a cargo vehicle. And, while the first flight version of Dream Chaser will not carry crew, SNC would still dearly love to find a way to expand their offering to a human rated system as well. Given enough time, and stability in the ISS program, who knows?

Any way you look at it, the United States is close to ushering in a golden age of commercial spaceflight.

Unfortunately, there are warning signs on the horizon which could spell trouble. NASA will tell you that one of the station program’s greatest strengths is the “I” in “ISS.” That may be the case, but it can also be a major weakness too.

Last week, Russian media reported that state space agency Roscosmos is giving heavy consideration to reducing its crew complement aboard the Station from 3 to 2 in order to save money. The story in Izvestia was based on an interview with manned programs director Sergei Krikalev and included the following quote: “Plans to reduce the crew stem from the fact that less cargo ships are sent to the ISS and from the necessity to boost the efficiency of the program.”

While a reduction in the Russian contribution along the lines suggested would not necessarily be a major problem for ISS, and would in fact open up potential seats for renewed tourist visits to the facility, it could also be a first step in a move towards disengaging from the program altogether.

Increasingly isolated from Western nations and striking a strident nationalist tone in almost everything he does, Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously expressed a desire to see his country develop an independent outpost in orbit, possibly including segments of ISS itself.

Why go to the trouble, and why embark on a new station program if you cannot fully pay for the one you already have?

It is worth remembering that what may soon be a source of U.S. pride and accomplishment in the deployment of five different commercial spacecraft serving the Space Station, (Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon, Starliner, Cygnus and Dream Chaser) is not likely to be viewed in the same warm light by an autocratic Russian leader who seemingly longs for a return to the Cold War. Add in the stunning progress SpaceX has made in recovering Falcon 9 first stages, an accomplishment partially enabled by NASA’s commercial approach to ISS supply, and even the ongoing development of an American mega booster in SLS, and it is easy to see how Russia could perceive itself as being left in the wake of history.

One way to catch up is to slow the other fellow down, and if Putin is indeed beginning to view space in Cold War terms, then a Russian retreat from ISS could achieve that goal at least partially, and for a brief period of time.

With so much to look forward to on the immediate horizon, let us hope that is not the case.

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  1. Commercial Crew companies shouldn’t be dependent on a big government space station for their survival.

    Their predominant destination should be to private commercial LEO space stations that can be periodically leased out to NASA, ESA, and other space agencies for a few weeks and to wealthy space tourist and space lotto winners around the world.

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