By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian space officials have informed U.S. counterparts that Moscow would like to keep flying its cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) until their own orbital outpost is built and operational, a senior NASA official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Taken together with remarks from a senior Russian space official published on Wednesday, the latest indications are that Russia is still at least six years away from ending an orbital collaboration with the United States that dates back more than two decades.
A schism in the ISS program seemed to be closer at hand on Tuesday, when Yuri Borisov, the newly appointed director-general of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, surprised NASA by announcing that Moscow intended to withdraw from the space station partnership "after 2024."
Kathy Lueders, NASA's space operations chief, said in an interview that Russian officials later on Tuesday told the U.S. space agency that Roscosmos wished to remain in the partnership as Russia works to get its planned orbital outpost, named ROSS, up and running.
"We're not getting any indication at any working level that anything's changed," Lueders told Reuters on Wednesday, adding that NASA's relations with Roscosmos remain "business as usual."
The space station, a science laboratory spanning the size of a football field and orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, has been continuously occupied for more than two decades under a U.S.-Russian-led partnership that also includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
It offers one of the last vestiges of cooperation between the United States and Russia, though its fate has been called into question since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, straining bilateral relations on a variety of fronts as the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on Moscow.
The Ukraine conflict also sparked tensions between Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA).
A formal agreement to extend Russia's ISS participation beyond 2024 has not yet been reached. NASA, Roscosmos, ESA and the station's other partners plan to discuss the prospect of extending each other's presence on the laboratory to 2030 during a periodic meeting on Friday of the board that oversees the station's management, Lueders said.
Roscosmos published on its website on Wednesday an interview with Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director for the space station's Russian segment, who was quoted as saying Russia must remain on the station until ROSS is operating.
Solovyov said he expected ROSS would be fully assembled in orbit sometime in 2028.
"We, of course, need to continue operating the ISS until we create a more or less tangible backlog for ROSS," Solovyov said. "We must take into account that if we stop manned flights for several years, then it will be very difficult to restore what has been achieved."
The American and Russian segments of the space station were deliberately built to be intertwined and technically interdependent, so that any abrupt withdrawal of Russian cooperation aboard the ISS could seriously disrupt a centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight program.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)