eyes on the U.S.

Why Russia Is Abandoning The International Space Station

With its programs aging, Russia has announced that it's pulling out of the International Space Station in 2020. Where does that leave space exploration for the rest of the world?

U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looking out the ISS
U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looking out the ISS
Elena Kudryavtseva

MOSCOW — An alarm went off in the American section of the International Space Station (ISS) on Jan. 14, warning that ammonia, which is used to cool the space station's energy system, had leaked into the atmosphere. Without it, the station would blow up like a can of food placed on an open flame. Following instructions, the three American astronauts fled to the safety of the Russian section, joining three astronauts there. It turned out that the space station's atmospheric monitoring system was simply malfunctioning.

A similar incident had happened before, in May 2013, when the astronauts spent six hours trying to find the problem. "A sensor that goes off erroneously is a signal that the space station can't stay in use forever," explains Andrei Ionin, an expert in space technology at the Academy of Astronautical Science. "At the beginning, the International Space Station was supposed to work through 2015 — that is, until about right now. There was good reason for deciding on that period of time, since the various systems on board have a certain guaranteed length of service."

The number of malfunctions and errors will only increase from now on, which is among the reasons why Russia's decision to pull out of the ISS in 2020 was a wise one, Ionin says.

The ISS — Photo: NASA/Crew of STS-132

There have been other problems too. In August, and again in September, the station launched several micro-satellites on its own because of a system malfunction. Yuri Karash, a Russian space policy and rocket systems expert, says these kinds of non-programmed actions on the part of the onboard computer was one of the key reasons why the Mir Space Station was retired.

"The oxygen system and the onboard computers break down on the International Space Station relatively regularly," Karash says. "Theoretically, they can be fixed. But what can't be is the wear on the metal the station is made of. There are micro-fissures in the module walls, and air is starting to leak out."

Karash says that a space station that endlessly circles the earth, that has already been in use for decades, reminds him of running in place. "It was never going to pay for itself in an economic sense, but now it doesn't pay for itself in a scientific sense," he says. "We don't have anything new to do in orbit. Or on the moon, for that matter: 12 Americans have already been there and brought back 400 kilos of rocks and soil. Today we should only go forward — and that means to Mars."

What to do in orbit?

Initially, a space station in orbit was considered nothing more than a stopping point, a place for humankind to launch its conquest of the heavens. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Polish-Russian rocket science who is considered one of the founding fathers of astronautic theory, left many drawings of cylindrical orbit stations, where hundreds of engineers were supposed to live among greenhouses and assemble spaceships for longer flights.

The Soviet Union launched its first orbit station in 1971, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach the moon. At the time, the scientists were interested both in the technical aspects of the trip and in seeing how human beings held up over extended stays in space.

There was serious concern, for example, about astronauts' psychological state in space. When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit earth in 1961, he had to do a simple logic task before he could control the spaceship's brakes, to make sure that he was still capable of thinking straight.

Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne exercising in the ISS — Photo: NASA

It turns out that these fears are well-founded, and there would be a similar problem on the route to Mars, where strong cosmic radiation would likely affect the human nervous system about halfway there. But we have been able to solve many riddles related to the cosmos, developing a whole field of science about how to survive in space and discovering where it is simply impossible to do so.

Just a decade after Gagarin's flight, reaching orbit began to seem mundane, and scientists were saying that we needed to go further. It just wasn't clear to where. And then the money ran out. So it was only logical to support the International Space Station, where it has been possible to carry out myriad scientific experiments, from micro-gravity environments to cultivating bacteria on the station's exterior.

"All of the participants in the International Space Station got what they wanted from it in the beginning," says Andrei Ionin. "In the 1990s, Russia couldn't have started a new project like the International Space Station on its own, and it was able to continue its space presence thanks to the ISS. Our Western partners were able to get access to unique technology and techniques at minimal expense."

Whither the ISS?

What will happen to the International Space Station now is an open question. The United States has said it is willing to support the work of the ISS even after Russia leaves the project in 2020. But experts say that's not realistic: They would have to learn to use the Russian technology, which is almost impossible, and it's not possible to maintain only one section of the station.

"The International Space Station was created as an integrated organism, because no one thought that one country might abandon the project," Karash says. "The American section depends on the Russian section to control the station's movement, and the Russian section depends on the American section's energy system. It would be easier to build a new station than to break up the International Space Station."

Sunrise seen from the Russian section of the ISS — Photo: NASA

There's also no clear idea of where to go next in space exploration. Vice Premier Dmitrii Rogozin, who is responsible for the Russian space program, is convinced that we should build yet another orbiting station. The government also considers colonization of the moon important. When it comes to the moon, Russia has concrete plans: to launch two landing vessels and one satellite in the next five years.

The third priority Rogozin has mentioned is a trip to Mars. In one recent interview, he suggested throwing all of the space program's resources into developing an asteroid protection system for earth and looking for aliens. The lack of focus in Russia's space plans is disquieting, but experts say we aren't the only ones in this situation.

"The Americans won't leave the International Space Station, in my opinion, because they simply don't know how else to move forward with manned space exploration," Ionin says. "That's where this "either the moon, or Mars, or to the asteroids" mentality comes from. The truth is that any of those projects would require at least doubling NASA's budget, and the American government is not planning to do that, because it doesn't see how that massive investment will lead to success."

Ionin speculates that the United States is taking a strategic break and is waiting for initiatives from the private sector, especially from Elon Musk's SpaceX. "When Musk focuses his project — I think he'll need another two or three years — then we'll see what direction the American space program is headed," he says. "But Russia, I think, will announce its priorities in space exploration this year."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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