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Space station looks set to become a bit less international

Russia will stop sending cosmonauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2025, the country’s new space chief confirmed this week.

Along with their American counterparts, Russian cosmonauts have been a constant presence on the orbiting outpost since it went into operation in 2000. But Russia says that as the ISS is set to be decommissioned in 2031, it wants to focus on building its own near-Earth space station instead.

“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, chief of Russian space agency Roscosmos said during a recent meeting with President Vladimir Putin, the AP reported. Borisov added that by that time he believes his team will “start forming a Russian orbiting station.”

While that may well be the case, it seems likely that fallout from the war in Ukraine may have served to cement Russia’s plans to exit the ISS ahead of its decommissioning date, with relations between it and the U.S. recently hitting an all-time low. Indeed, Borisov’s contentious predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, hit the headlines for a number of controversial comments in the months following Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, including a threat to crash the ISS on the U.S. or Europe if sanctions were imposed on his country.

NASA said recently that it wants to use the ISS for at least eight more years before replacing it with a privately funded station. It’s not yet clear if Russia’s decision to exit early will jeopardize those plans.

The early signs are positive, however, as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was quick to put out a statement on Tuesday insisting the agency was “committed to the safe operation” of the ISS through 2030 and will continue “to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”

Meanwhile, Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS for NASA, said on Tuesday that neither she nor her colleagues had been contacted by Roscosmos about its stated decision to leave the ISS.

“We haven’t received any official word from [Roscosmos] as to the news today,” Gatens said, adding that they’d be “talking more about their plan going forward.”

Despite difficulties between Russia and the U.S. over the years, the ISS has always been a place where representatives from the two nations have been able to happily live and work together, collaborating on science projects aboard one of the technological wonders of the 21st century — a habitable, space-based laboratory.

Still, if the Russians do leave the facility soon after 2024, the ISS will remain international as it will continue to host astronauts from the U.S., Canada, Japan, and a raft of European countries.

Russia won’t be the first nation to go it alone when building a space-based facility for long-duration stays. China is in the process of deploying parts for its own near-Earth station, which currently hosts three of its taikonauts. Just a few days ago the country launched to space a second major component of its habitable satellite.

To learn more about how spacefarers live and work on the ISS, check out these insightful videos made by the astronauts themselves.

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Trevor Mogg
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