Russia backtracks ISS quit threat as Buzz Aldrin's flight jacket sells for millions

Buzz Aldrin's moon jacket
Roscosmos has indicated it's probably six years away from ending the collaboration with NASA. Photo credit: Getty Images

Russian space officials have informed US 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.

Taken together with remarks from a senior Russian space official published on Wednesday, US time, 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 earlier this week, 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 told the US 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, 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 400 km above Earth, has been continuously occupied for more than two decades under a US-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 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.

US gyroscopes provide day-to-day control over ISS orientation in space while the Russian unit provides the propulsion used to keep the station in orbit and is used to dodge space debris.

Meanwhile, famed Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin's flight jacket, which he wore on the historic mission to the moon in 1969, was sold for about US$2.8 million in New York, auction house Sotheby's said.

The jacket front displays NASA's logo and the Apollo 11 mission emblem, which is slightly below Aldrin's name tag.

It also has the United States' flag on its left shoulder and is made of Beta cloth, a fireproof cloth that was incorporated into NASA space suits after three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a flash fire aboard their spacecraft during a ground test in 1967.

After the jacket, the second highest grossing item at the auction was the summary flight plan of the Apollo 11 mission. It was sold for US$819,000, exceeding estimates of US$100,000-US$150,000.

Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the moon. Aldrin, who is now 92, is the only surviving member of the mission's three-man crew.