For over two decades, the International Space Station (ISS) has served as a collaborative research vessel for astronauts from around the world. Science experiments conducted on the permanently manned spacecraft are viewed as integral to future exploration and have even provided the foundation for breakthroughs here on Earth. More than a research lab, the ISS Program has been hailed as a post-Cold War diplomatic triumph for partners Russia and the US, which operate the spacecraft alongside Canada, Europe and Japan.
But now, geopolitics are threatening to put that work at risk. Russia is mulling the launch of its own orbital space station in 2025 as it debates withdrawing from the ISS Program to go it alone, reports the AFP. The country's space agency has reportedly started work on the station's first core module, according to a statement shared on Telegram by Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin. Moscow says its deliberations are based on the age of the ISS, but it's hard to ignore the impact of recent events on the ground.
"When we make a decision we will start negotiations with our partners on forms and conditions of cooperation beyond 2024," Roscosmos told AFP in a statement.
Russia lost controlling access to the ISS last year after SpaceX performed its first operational mission to the orbiting lab for NASA. Vladimir Putin has also warned that the US' decision to launch a Space Force suggests the White House views space as a "military theatre and plans to conduct operations there." Meanwhile, the Biden administration's criticism of Russia's treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — and growing fears over a military conflict in Ukraine — have further ruptured relations between the two sides.
Russia also has a history of operating space laboratories. It previously built the Mir, a modular space station that was in orbit for 15 years and is reportedly working with China on a planned research station on the Moon.