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Opinion As Russia waffles on the space station, NASA should think ahead

The SpaceX Dragon approaches the International Space Station in April. (NASA)

Orbiting an average of 250 miles above Earth, the International Space Station has managed to stay above the fray of earthly political turbulence for more than two decades. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, tensions between the United States and Russia are running high enough to reach this symbol of post-Cold War collaboration.

Russia’s recent announcement that it has decided to withdraw from the space station “after 2024” is deliberately vague, signaling at least a few more years of cooperation with the United States. It is cooperation, though, with an increasingly unreliable partner. For NASA, this reinforces the importance of planning ahead: for continuing operations of the aging space station without Russian involvement, and for investment in the space projects that come next.

The Biden administration and the Congress-approved Chips and Science Act officially extended NASA’s involvement in the space station until 2030. But the United States still needs other international partners to sign on for the extension, with Russia as the primary wild card. Moscow hasn’t shied away from using the space station as leverage and war propaganda. The “after 2024” comment came from Yuri Borisov, the newly appointed head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The news wasn’t unexpected, as Russian officials have talked of leaving the space station since 2021. In recent months, the former head of Roscosmos said discussions about Russian involvement in the space station past 2024 would be possible only if U.S. sanctions against the Russian space industry and other sectors were lifted.

These previous threats have mostly been bluster. Mr. Borisov’s announcement could be, too, as Moscow hasn’t formally submitted a notice of withdrawal. Russian officials later told NASA in a private conversation that Roscosmos intends to stay with the space station until Russia gets its own orbital outpost up and running, which, by Russia’s own estimates, might take until 2028.

Despite Russia’s talk, space station operations are stable for now. In July, the two countries’ space agencies planned joint missions. But Russia’s caginess means its cooperation past 2024 can’t be assumed. The space station is designed for both countries to be dependent on one another, and disentangling operations would be a difficult technical challenge. NASA should prioritize making contingency plans for keeping the space station operational without Russian support.

At the same time, its aging technology means the space station is nearing the end of its lifetime. If Russia wants to leave the space station to pursue its own space station, the United States must look ahead, too. At the end of last year, NASA picked three companies to develop commercial space stations for government and private-sector use. (One of them is Blue Origin, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.) For the United States to maintain an uninterrupted presence in low Earth orbit, these projects should be given the support they need so that a commercial station is waiting in the wings when the space station is retired.

Launched in 1998, the space station has been sustained by the hope that despite other differences, the United States and Russia can work together. As the space station approaches its last decade of use, it’s unfortunate that U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated to a point where such hope is in jeopardy. Amid such uncertainty, NASA should be guided by pragmatism.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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