At Least Russia and the U.S. Still Get Along in Outer Space

The Ukraine crisis is just another blip on the political radar for the two countries’ collaboration in space exploration.

From left to right, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryazanskiy and Oleg Kotov American astronaut Mike Hopkins hold hands after their return to Earth on March 11, following five-and-a-half months onboard the International Space Station.
National Journal
Marina Koren
March 25, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

On Tues­day night, a trio of as­tro­nauts launched in­to space, headed for the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Two are Rus­si­an, one is Amer­ic­an.

Their six-hour shared jour­ney to the or­bit­al labor­at­ory was the near op­pos­ite of the one that their home na­tions are tak­ing here on Earth. As the as­tro­nauts got cozy in­side a small cap­sule, ready to live and work to­geth­er for the next six months aboard the sta­tion, the United States and Rus­sia put more and more dis­tance between each oth­er.

Pres­id­ent Obama and the oth­er G-8 lead­ers an­nounced Monday that the or­gan­iz­a­tion would fore­go a planned sum­mer­time sum­mit in So­chi and meet without Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin in Brus­sels as the G-7 in­stead. The pre­cari­ous work­ing re­la­tion­ship U.S. and Rus­sia en­joyed be­fore the lat­ter an­nexed Crimea, a sov­er­eign ter­rit­ory of Ukraine, has cer­tainly de­teri­or­ated.

NASA, however, is not wor­ried about the Ukraine crisis tak­ing a toll on space ex­plor­a­tion.

“We do not ex­pect the cur­rent Rus­sia-Ukraine situ­ation to have an im­pact on our long-stand­ing civil space co­oper­a­tion with Rus­sia, which goes back dec­ades, in­clud­ing our part­ner­ship on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion pro­gram,” said NASA spokes­man Joshua Buck in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We are con­fid­ent that our two space agen­cies will con­tin­ue to work closely as they have throughout vari­ous ups and downs of the broad­er U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tion­ship.”

The In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion has in­deed weathered ter­restri­al polit­ic­al storms in the past. “It doesn’t ap­pear that we are af­fected by what’s go­ing on dip­lo­mat­ic­ally with the Rus­si­ans,” Al Sofge, dir­ect­or of NASA’s hu­man ex­plor­a­tion and op­er­a­tions di­vi­sion, has said of the con­flict in Syr­ia and Rus­sia’s pro­tec­tion of Amer­ic­an whistle-blower Ed­ward Snowden. “I don’t know that we’ve ever even dis­cussed it.”

After 16 years in or­bit, the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion is truly a bi­lat­er­al ef­fort. The sta­tion, di­vided in­to Amer­ic­an and Rus­si­an seg­ments, uses Amer­ic­an sol­ar ar­rays and power sys­tems, Rus­si­an life-sup­port sys­tems, and a nav­ig­a­tion sys­tem that comes from both na­tions.

The U.S. and Rus­sia first col­lab­or­ated in space in Ju­ly 1975, when a So­viet Soy­uz cap­sule car­ry­ing two cos­mo­nauts docked with a U.S. Apollo mod­ule car­ry­ing three as­tro­nauts. In the 1990s, after the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed, the U.S. asked Rus­sia to join its work on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Rus­sia was too fin­an­cially strapped to build a pro­gram of its own, BBC’s Melissa Ho­gen­boom ex­plained in 2012, and the U.S. was be­hind sched­ule on the pro­ject and needed help.

This “re­luct­ant code­pend­ency,” as NBC space ana­lyst James Oberg dubbed it, per­sists to this day. At the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, Rus­sia de­pends on NASA’s elec­tron­ics and com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy, which are more ad­vanced. The U.S. de­pends on Ro­scos­mos, the Rus­si­an fed­er­al agency, to send its as­tro­nauts to space. After NASA re­tired its space-shuttle pro­gram in 2011, Rus­sia be­came the sole na­tion with the cap­ab­il­ity of car­ry­ing as­tro­nauts and cargo to and from space. Even U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity satel­lites are powered in­to or­bit on an Amer­ic­an rock­et with a Rus­si­an-built rock­et en­gine.

The part­ner­ship is, more or less, a good one. But NASA is eager to break out of Rus­sia’s mono­poly on as­tro­naut trans­port, and the cur­rent Ukraine crisis, Oberg wrote earli­er this month, is a good reas­on to speed up the ef­fort. Right now, NASA pays $70.7 mil­lion per seat to send its as­tro­nauts to space on Rus­si­an Soy­uz cap­sules, $8 mil­lion more than a pre­vi­ous agree­ment. But by 2017, NASA of­fi­cials say the U.S. should be able to send its as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion on its own, thanks to private Amer­ic­an space­flight com­pan­ies.

One of those com­pan­ies could be space­craft man­u­fac­turer SpaceX, a NASA fa­vor­ite. Its Dragon space­craft, perched atop a Fal­con 9 rock­et, will launch for the third time from Cape Canaver­al on Sunday, car­ry­ing cargo to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Dragon could be mod­i­fied to carry as­tro­nauts as well, but that de­vel­op­ment is still a few years away.

Un­til then, the U.S. has oth­er for­eign op­tions for send­ing sup­plies to the sta­tion, in­clud­ing European and Ja­pan­ese ro­bot freight­ers. It could also reach out to China, which suc­cess­fully trans­por­ted crew to and from a space sta­tion last sum­mer. But such a move is highly un­likely for now. China is not one of the 15 par­ti­cipants of the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion pro­ject, in part be­cause of U.S. op­pos­i­tion.

The shift away from Rus­si­an de­pend­ence has bi­par­tis­an sup­port in Con­gress. In 2008, Sen. Bill Nel­son, D-Fla., chair­man of the Sen­ate’s Sci­ence and Space Sub­com­mit­tee, wor­ried that shut­ting down the space-shuttle pro­gram could res­ult in “Rus­sia deny­ing us rides or char­ging ex­or­bit­ant amounts for them. The rank­ing mem­ber on that sub­com­mit­tee, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said last spring that the U.S. should use Amer­ic­an aerospace con­tract­ors to send its as­tro­nauts to space.

Re­cent ter­restri­al ten­sions are un­likely to be felt 220 miles in­to the sky. Earli­er this month, NASA chief Charles Bolden said some have wondered wheth­er the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, which has “con­tin­ued to ex­ist and con­tin­ued to func­tion with people from a vari­ety of cul­tures and be­liefs,” should be nom­in­ated for a No­bel Peace Prize. Con­sid­er­ing the sta­tion may now be one of the few places where U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions are go­ing well, that might not be such a bad idea.

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