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Who will plug the hole when Russia pulls out?

  • Jason McClellan

The future of the International Space Station is unclear after Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) recently confirmed that Russia will pull out from the ISS in 2024, leaving the U.S. in a sticky situation.

The problems started in mid-2014 when the U.S. pissed off Russia by imposing sanctions on the country for its role in the Ukraine crisis. On May 13, 2014, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin held a news conference at which he threatened to pull Russia out of the International Space Station by 2020.

And, confirming its exit, on February 24, 2015 Roscosmos announced that it plans to separate the Russian modules from the ISS in 2024 and use those modules for a new Russian space station.

So what’s the big deal? Why can’t the U.S. just give Russia a swift kick in the ass and say, “Later, dicks!”?

The problem is that, without Russia, the ISS is severely crippled. Slate Magazine’s Phil Plait details the problem, explaining, “They don’t need us, but we need them . . . Zvezda (the Russian module that is the center of their operations on ISS) has the propulsion module, for example, and other critical components needed to keep the station’s life support running. 

NASA also relies on Russia’s Soyuz system to transport astronauts to and from ISS.

Russia’s pullout presents problems. But the U.S. has a backup plan in place, right?

Wrong. 

At a recent US House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explained, “Our backup plan, if you want to talk about that, would be to mutually agree that the space station and space exploration is going to come to an end. We would make an orderly evacuation of the International Space Station."

Bolden’s comments emphasize the seriousness of the situation. Fortunately, where transportation is concerned, NASA has contracts in place with Boeing and SpaceX to provide astronaut transportation systems. These systems aren’t ready yet, but are scheduled to be ready in 2017, before Russia’s pullout. But these systems do no good if there isn’t a functioning space station.

And, as Bolden stated, there are no plans in place to remedy the pending ISS problem. But an inflatable space module from Bigelow Aerospace will be tested on the ISS in mid-2015. Perhaps NASA should look to Bigelow to plug the hole.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is pretty awesome. But it’s unknown if the BEAM modules have some of the useful features of Bigelow’s BA330 modules that could really aid the ailing space station, like control thrusters and an onboard environmental control system.

Bigelow Aerospace is using its modules to develop a commercial space station. It’s unclear if any of Bigelow’s modules can appropriately clean up the big mess Russia will cause when it pulls out from the ISS in 2024. But, being that expandable space modules are Bigelow Aerospace’s specialty, that’s likely an option NASA will explore.