It happened again this weekend. Both Bloomberg and axios reported that Russia is leaving the International Space Station due to sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States. Each of these stories attracted considerable attention. And every one of those stories was wrong, too.
This has become a predictable pattern in recent weeks: Dmitry Rogozin, the talkative head of the Russian space company, will give an interview to a Russian space magazine, and then Western news outlets will pick up on what Rogozin says and jump to conclusions that are simply wrong .
Specifically, Rogozin said on state television this weekend: “The decision has already been made, we are not obliged to speak publicly about it. All I can say is that, as per our commitments, we will notify our partners of the end of our work on the ISS with one year’s notice.”
2024 or beyond
That may sound ominous, but that is the wrong interpretation of Rogozin’s words. There is actually some positive news in it, with Rogozin saying that Russia will give NASA and its other partners a full year’s notice of departure. This is more than enough time for NASA and its commercial partners Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and Boeing to work together to save the greater western segment of the space station.
But when will this departure mentioned by Rogozin come? The current operating agreement between the 15 partner nations that administer the International Space Station ends in 2024. The United States and most other partner nations have signaled they want to continue flying the nearly 25-year-old space station beyond 2030. Russia is still considering its options , although NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said last week he expects Russia to participate beyond 2024.
The reality is that after more than two months of ugly fighting in Ukraine, the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos has largely overcome geopolitical tensions. There are no signs that anything will change in the short term, and in his interview Rogozin merely reiterates that the country may choose not to extend its partnership beyond 2024. However, as is often the case, Rogozin makes this statement with a little noise, trying to project power.
What I’ve learned from reporting on Dmitry Rogozin over the past decade is that by far the best policy you can have against him is to ignore what he says publicly. To better understand the motivations of the 58-year-old Putin apparatchik, I spoke to a former senior NASA official who has been involved with Rogozin for years to get some background.
“He never wanted this job,” the former NASA source said of Rogozin. “He was essentially demoted and he spent his time at Roscosmos trying to get back into Putin’s good graces. And so it was just an extraordinarily different kind of leadership than we’ve seen before, to everyone’s detriment.”
For reasons that are not entirely clear, in May 2018 Putin removed Rogozin from the prestigious position of deputy prime minister for Russia’s defense and space industries. Rogozin was subsequently tasked with overseeing Roscosmos, which focuses primarily on civilian space travel. Rather than bring a space background or industrial expertise to Roskosmos, Rogozin brought his own brand of Russian nationalist politics.
“Coming back to the Cold War, there was an unwritten rule that Roscosmos and NASA would not criticize each other,” the Western source said. “No matter how bad things got on Earth, the two space agencies would never say a bad word. Rather, they would continue to work together and let the politicians fight. Well, that changed dramatically with Rogozin.”
During his time at Roscosmos, Rogozin has frequently shot (not to mention Charges against journalists for war crimes). However, the fundamental relationship between Roscosmos and NASA has not changed. Warm relations continue to exist at the level of astronauts and cosmonauts, engineers and managers.
And that’s understandable. “In terms of overall cooperation on the ISS, the base of Roscosmos, even the leadership of Roscosmos, absolutely wants and needs to continue this activity,” the source said. “Because if they leave the ISS, they lose their space program. We are literally talking about the death of the Russian civilian space program.”
Of course, Rogozin remains the joker. He probably wouldn’t hesitate to abandon the partnership with the space station if it earned him points with Putin. But that is not what has happened in Ukraine since the outbreak of war. Rogozin has rumbled and struck a pose, but he hasn’t made definitive breaks with NASA or Russia’s Western partners over Space Station activities. In this case, actions speak much louder than words.
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