2024: A Russian Space Odyssey
By Brian Patrick Green
Russia’s recent announcement that it intends to leave the International Space Station after 2024 didn’t exactly stun Brian Patrick Green, director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Afterall, the deterioration of relationships between Russia and the rest of the world continues apace since it invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Space has always been a very political environment, because it’s so directly connected to the military and national prestige,” says Green, the author of “Space Ethics,” a comprehensive introduction to the ethics of interplanetary exploration and use. “So it doesn’t surprise me that the space station has become political. But it’s unfortunate because it was such a good point of cooperation between Russia and the United States for so long.”
Launched in 1998, the International Space Station—the length of a football field, measured end to end—started hosting an international crew in 2000. The astronauts live and work while traveling at five miles per second, orbiting Earth about every 90 minutes. According to NASA, the acre of solar panels that power the station allows us to sometimes see it flying in the sky at dawn or dusk.
While Green takes Russia’s threat of exiting the station seriously, he’s not entirely convinced it will happen—at least not that soon. For one thing, he notes that “after 2024” could mean anything. And even if Russia hopes to build its own station, Green says it stands to lose more than just the partnerships with five space agencies from 15 countries. Russia would also leave behind important scientific studies at the station that focus on how space affects human biology, and our chances of living in space.
We sat down with Green to discuss Russia’s decision to quit the ISS, and some of the implications.
What’s likely driving the timing of Russia’s decision to quit the station?
The Russian government is very upset right now—they don’t like the way things are going in Ukraine, but it’s a war they chose and thought was going to be easy. Now it’s turned out to be very, very difficult for them, and not just the war but the entire international context. So they’re testing different switches, and trying to figure out where they actually have leverage in a situation that they’re not happy about. What happens if we toggle this switch over here on space cooperation? Or what happens if we do this?
One of the things about the Russian government that confuses me is that they often try to get other nations to cooperate by threatening them. This is not a way to make friends, but they don’t seem to understand that. So now they’re in a situation where they’re unhappy, they want things to be going better. And the main way they know to relate to people is by threatening them.
The U.S. never allowed China to join the space station, apparently due to espionage concerns. While Russia would like to build its own station, you note the possibility that Russia could team up with China’s space station program. Does the idea of the world’s two largest authoritarian nations joining space efforts worry you?
It does concern me. Overall, I think the International Space Station is much more important to Russia to have than not to have, but if Russia wants to leave and team up with the Chinese, and maybe form their own “alternative International Space Station,” they can do that.
Ultimately, I would like there to be cooperation in space; I’d like the Russians to be part of the ISS, and I think it might make sense now for the Chinese to also be part of the ISS. The technological differences are no longer that great.
Or, if we’re going to have multiple space stations in orbit, we could trade astronauts back and forth, welcoming astronauts from one space station over to another space station periodically. The more people in space, the better; the more invested we are in space, and the more cooperative those actions are, the better. Ideally, humankind would go forth into space as one people; the space environment is harsh enough without us bringing our strife along with us.
If Russia really does leave, how might that affect the operation of the station?
Typically, Russia has made the boosters used to keep the station in low Earth orbit, so we would lose their boosters. However, back in June a Northrop Grumman Cygnus capsule reboosted the station, and Elon Musk has also said something to the effect that his company (SpaceX) could figure out how to boost the station.
The station travels in low Earth orbit, about 250 miles above us, and that’s intentional; they keep it there because it's relatively free of orbital debris. The reason it is relatively debris-free is because there is also a small amount of atmosphere up there, and the drag of the Earth’s atmosphere slowly pulls things down, including the station, so it needs to be boosted up periodically. Otherwise, it will eventually burn up and the remaining pieces will hit the Earth.
What’s been the value of the cooperative work done on the International Space Station?
A lot of it is human health research about the long term exposure to radiation, the long term exposure to microgravity, or weightlessness, and long term nutritional-type studies, because it’s a very different nutritional environment up there. We’re never going to be able to get to Mars, for example, if we don't have this kind of data that we’re gathering on the space station.
NASA did a really interesting study that I mentioned in my book about identical twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. Scott was sent to the space station for nearly a year, and Mark remained here on Earth, and they compared them after that. Space is really, really hard on the human body, and NASA discovered significant changes in Scott, all the way down to the genetic level; a lot of his DNA was just being expressed very, very differently than his twin down on Earth.
To stop Ukraine from being independent, Russia started the biggest war in Europe since World War II. Why shouldn’t we expect that kind of behavior to continue in space?
People have been terrible to each other in the past and will continue to be so in the future. But the world overall has also improved in many ways, so I also have a more optimistic take. We have to remember that in World War II, Germany and Japan were horrible enemies to the rest of the world. Now they are fully integrated into the world system and are some of its most dedicated supporters of democracy and all the other ethical values that we prize so highly.
So I think we need to recognize that, at some point, Russia’s regime is going to change again, and there’s a possibility that maybe it’ll actually turn out well. And we should also recognize that China isn’t always going to be run by its current leaders. While the situation right now isn’t that great, things are, I think, overall, improving. By all means we should be worried, but that worry should motivate us to do what we can to improve the world.
One of the things that made me really appreciate this long-term arc of moral progress is reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, “Democracy in America,” which he wrote back in the 1830s. He makes a point, in his introduction to the book, that if you look at the state of Western Civilization between the year 1000 and when he was writing, just sampling every 50 years, you’d see that equality, the economic situation, and the situation of freedom overall, had improved.
De Tocqueville was very interested in ethics from a big picture perspective. He had these notions of “this is good government” or “this is bad government,” and “these are good or bad political positions.”
It is my hope that this same progress towards equality and freedom will apply not only on Earth but also in space. But I hold it as an aspiration, not as a given. The thing is, we have to actually do the work to get there, and that’s why ethics is so important. Ethics tells us that we have to actually make the good choices; otherwise we don’t get the better future. But if we are doing the work, then we certainly can justifiably hope that we will make the future better.