What will happen to the International Space Station if NATO and Russia go to war?

by Thomas Kitchen

Staff Writer

The following story was written by a student on the staff of The Jaguar Times as part of Hilliard Bradley High School’s Journalism Production course.

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly around. Credit NASA.
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly around. Credit NASA.

With the recent Russian attacks against Ukraine, it is looking like war between Russian and NATO powers is a possibility in the near future. Although spaceflight enthusiasts such as myself may have asked the question, “If Russia and NATO powers go to war, what will happen to the International Space Station?” So I have come up with possible scenarios that I think could happen to the International Space Station if war with Russia and NATO occurs.

The International Space Station (ISS) has served as a beacon of International cooperation and peace for the last two decades. And according to NASA, “The ISS has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken.” Fifteen countries have contributed and astronauts from nineteen countries have visited the ISS, The United States and Russia being major contributors to the ISS. Unfortunately as the situation continues to develop at the Ukrainian border it turns out that 10 of the 19 countries that have visited the ISS are members of NATO. So if war is declared, what would happen if members of opposing nations meet face to face in space?

Joey Chapman, a junior at Hilliard Bradley has a concern, “I would hope that the scientists would be willing to set aside their differences in order to continue research and development of the ISS.” Thankfully, there would be absolutely no bloodshed on the ISS as astronauts are trained to quickly and harmlessly resolve personal disputes. As a matter of fact, all astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS have a deep respect for each other. American astronauts learn a great deal about Russian language and culture before ever going to space, the same is for Russian cosmonauts learning about American culture. Every scenario that I’ve come up with where war between Russia and NATO happens involves the astronauts and cosmonauts peacefully shaking hands and leaving the ISS.

Scenario 1: Destruction

In November of 2021 Russia conducted a test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile by shooting down a defunct Soviet satellite called Cosmos 1408 that hasn't functioned since the 1980s. The effect of this test caused the astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS to have to board their spacecraft so they could evacuate in the event that debris from the satellite hit the ISS. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement that he was "outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action. - it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts." It is also notable that the ASAT test was controlled solely by the Russian military so there's a chance the Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS had no knowledge of the test before it took place. Now that Russia has proven its ability to shoot down satellites, if war broke out between NATO and Russia, there would most likely be many satellites shot down. This could spell doom for the ISS as since the Boeing Starliner has not been completed yet (if it is completed at all), Russia is the only country capable of moving the ISS out of danger from debris. Russia just may choose to let the ISS be destroyed because they hold all the leverage and might choose not to bear the financial burden of the ISS. Also because Russia holds this leverage they may just let the ISS meet the same fate as Skylab, burning up uncontrolled in the atmosphere.

Scenario 2: decommission

If the ISS isn’t destroyed by space debris or meeting the same fate as Skylab I think it’s possible that the US and its International partners wouldn’t want to deal with the financial burdens that the ISS presents anymore. The ISS has received the go ahead for funding into 2030 but if the ISS were to be abandoned for an extended period of time to deal with the situation on the ground Russia might leave the ISS. Russia in the past has threatened to leave the ISS and build their own station in the past. Particularly in June of 2021 Russia threatened to leave the ISS in 2025 if US sanctions against the Russian space sector were not lifted to allow imports of microchips necessary for the construction of satellites. Also with NASA’s Artemis program having planned to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station around the Moon, NASA could (though probably not) use old ISS modules in the construction of the Gateway. Since the ISS is planned to be decommissioned in 2031, NASA has expressed extensively that they want to move into the commercialization of space stations. Russia also has plans for Cosmonauts to visit the Chinese space station. It’s clear that the partnership of the ISS is ending and war between Russia and NATO would only speed up that process.

Could there be a future of the ISS not involving Russia? Yes, but I don’t think so if Russia and NATO go to war. Although financially, it falls on primarily NASA in maintaining the ISS, it seems like NASA could continue operating the ISS until 2031. The problem arises because Russia is the only country that can boost the ISS and change its orbit. Without the Boeing Starliner, NASA can’t operate the ISS to its full potential. With NASA handing out contracts to commercial companies to build commercial space stations the ISS doesn't have much time left. War between Russia and NATO I believe would only speed up the decommissioning of the ISS.

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