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."