Russia threatens to leave International Space Station program over US sanctions: reports
Russia's space chief is threatening to leave the International Space Station (ISS) program in 2025 unless the United States lifts sanctions against the Russian space sector.
"If the sanctions … remain and are not lifted in the near future, the issue of Russia's withdrawal from the ISS will be the responsibility of the American partners," Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said during a Russian parliament hearing on Monday (June 7), according to NBC News.
"Either we work together, in which case the sanctions are lifted immediately, or we will not work together and we will deploy our own station," Rogozin added. Russia is about to launch a new docking module to the ISS this summer that could serve as the hub of an independent complex.
Related: The International Space Station: Inside and out (infographic)
Rogozin also claimed that Russia cannot launch some satellites because the U.S. sanctions forbid his country from importing some microchips required for the Russian program, Reuters reported. (There is also a global shortage of microchips associated with manufacturing shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.)
"We have more than enough rockets but nothing to launch them with," Rogozin said, according to Reuters. "We have spacecraft that are nearly assembled, but they lack one specific microchip set that we have no way of purchasing because of the sanctions."
In 2014, Rogozin famously remarked that NASA should use trampolines instead of Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get astronauts to the ISS. The comments came after the United States and other Western countries imposed sanctions on Russian officials — including Rogozin himself — related to Russian military actions in Crimea. (After NASA's space shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011, the Soyuz was the only orbital astronaut taxi available. That situation changed last year, however, when SpaceX began flying crews to and from the ISS.)
Other recent sanctions came in the wake of what U.S. officials described as Russian-led cyberattacks and election interference — a claim Russia has denied, Reuters noted. In December, the administration of President Donald Trump alleged that Russian space entities TsNIIMash (the Central Research Institute of Machine Building) and the Rocket and Space Center Progress have ties to the nation's military, NBC reported. Such a designation means that U.S. companies need to acquire licenses before selling to these organizations.
These entities were among dozens that came under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Commerce during Trump's tenure, in both Russia and China. Fresh tensions came after new U.S. President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a "killer" earlier this year, according to Reuters, while imposing more sanctions on Russia.
Rogozin had an "introductory phone call" with new NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Friday (June 4), NASA said that same day in a statement, framing the conversation as a "productive discussion about continued cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos." The statement, quoting Nelson, also said that NASA is "committed to continuing that very effective ISS partnership."
Yet a statement by Roscosmos on Friday said that the sanctions and a lack of official information about the future of the ISS are "substantially hindering the cooperation" between Russia and the U.S. in the space realm, which extends back to 1975's Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission. The current ISS agreement is set to end in 2024, although numerous partners are negotiating an extension until at least 2028.
Russia indicated that it needs more assurances to move forward after 2024. "This is about the sanctions introduced by the American administration against the enterprises of the Russian space industry, as well as the absence of any official information in Roscosmos from the U.S. partners on the plans to further control and operate the ISS," Roscosmos said in Friday's statement.
Related: Building the International Space Station (photos)
Both NASA and Roscosmos said they do plan to continue discussions, including face-to-face. Nelson is expected to come to Russia soon, and negotiations will be ongoing with the Europeans until "end of June 2021," Roscosmos said.
One opportunity for discussion is the Global Space Exploration Conference, which will be held in St. Petersburg from June 14 to June 18. That meeting is co-hosted by Roscosmos and the International Astronautical Federation.
The Americans and the Russians have been the major partners in the ISS program since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when the space station agreement was modified to bring in Russian participation — in part due to international concerns about where Russian space engineers would go amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. Getting ready for ISS long-duration missions was also one of the reasons NASA offered to ferry Americans to the Soviet-Russian Mir space station in the 1990s.
At the time that Russia was invited to join the ISS project, Europe, Japan and Canada had been working on another NASA-led program called Space Station Freedom. Freedom never got off the ground due to complex technical, funding and policy problems during its development.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
By Robert Lea