The contingency plan drawn up by NASA cites a variety of possible scenarios, such as how to remove all astronauts from the ISS in the event of Russia’s abrupt withdrawal from the ISS program, how to remove all astronauts from the ISS without Russian spaceflight, according to three sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Continue to maintain the normal operation of the International Space Station with the critical hardware provided by the agency. In addition, NASA has also considered in its contingency plan the possibility of destroying the International Space Station several years earlier than originally planned.
While NASA has previously acknowledged the existence of contingency plans for the International Space Station program, it has avoided discussing the matter in public. Instead, NASA officials have repeatedly emphasized their close relationship with Roscosmos.
“Obviously, we’re very committed to maintaining that relationship,” Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s space operations, said in an interview last week. “However, we need to make sure we do have a plan. We are NASA. We are always dealing with contingencies.”
The International Space Station was designed more than 20 years ago, and NASA and Roscosmos are interdependent on the technical aspects of the ISS. NASA provides the space station with balanced gyroscopes and a solar array, while Roscosmos controls the propulsion to keep the ISS running smoothly in orbit.
It is reported that a number of aerospace companies have been included in the contingency plan. Boeing, one of the main private contractors of the ISS, has also assigned a team of engineers to study how to control the ISS to continue operating without Russian thrusters.
NASA has been drafting formal contracts in recent weeks that would require contractors to determine how to deorbit the ISS early in case Roscosmos pulls out of the ISS program, two of the sources said. Roscosmos currently operates the International Space Station’s thrusters in Moscow and plays a key role in controlling how the space station enters Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the project.
Reports last week quoted Yuri Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency, as saying that Russia has not yet set a date for withdrawing from the ISS program, but that any withdrawal procedure would “strictly follow our obligations” “. Under the ISS cooperation agreement, any partner must submit a one-year notice of intent to withdraw.
NASA said Roscosmos asked NASA two years ago if it could provide a spacecraft to help deorbit the ISS.
Beyond that, NASA declined to discuss the specifics of the contingency plans it is considering. But NASA said it “continues to find new capabilities for the International Space Station and plans to seamlessly transition to a commercially operating low-Earth orbit destination.”
Currently, NASA is working hard to promote the development of a private space station, aiming to replace the International Space Station after the project ends in 2030.
NASA’s contingency plans focused on how to take control of the ISS without Russian thrusters, the sources said.
In an exercise in June this year, Northrop Grumman for the first time allowed a modified Cygnus cargo spacecraft to start the thrusters during docking, changing the orbit of the space station, and successfully demonstrated an alternative to Russian thrusters. potential solutions.
A Northrop Grumman spokesman said all future Cygnus spacecraft will be able to restart thrusters this way if NASA requests it. The test was included in a NASA program launched in 2018, but has been accelerated recently, the sources said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, is working on a similar spacecraft re-propulsion feature, two of the sources said. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft currently transports cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA’s contingency plan begins in late 2021, four U.S. officials said. In November, Russia destroyed an abandoned satellite, creating a debris field near the International Space Station, forcing astronauts to take refuge in the spacecraft, the sources said.
Still, senior officials at both NASA and Roscosmos have repeatedly reiterated the importance of space cooperation.
“It’s a huge benefit for America’s science, technology, and advancement of the space program,” said former U.S. security adviser Rose Gottemoeller of the partnership on the International Space Station program. Gottemoeller Played a key role in the 1993 ISS cooperation agreement.
The NASA team in Moscow in early July finalized a long-sought deal with Roscosmos to share a spacecraft to the International Space Station, the sources said. The agreement, announced July 15, allows Russian astronauts to fly on American-made spacecraft in exchange for American astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. According to the agreement, Russian astronaut Anna Kikina will take off from Florida in September on SpaceX’s manned Dragon spacecraft.
NASA is currently in talks with Roscosmos and other ISS partners to extend the official end of the ISS program by another six years to 2030.
Observers of the Russian space program also revealed that financial pressures on the Russian space agency are also a key factor.
Last week, Borisov, the head of the Russian space agency, quoted Russian engineers as saying that after 2024, there could be a “cascading” of technical problems on the International Space Station. After 2024, the cost of maintaining Russian modules is “huge”, he said. He added that Roscosmos’s exploration of building its own space station is also “an economical stopgap measure.”