The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Soyuz approaching ISS
The Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft shortly before docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on March 27. Although there is a new NASA policy banning cooperation with Russia, ISS operations, exempted by the ban, continue normally. (credit: NASA)

Symbolism and substance in US-Russian space relations

Bookmark and Share

A week ago, it appeared that concerns that arose at the beginning of March about the effect the Ukraine crisis would have on US-Russian space relations had, if not died down, at least leveled off. While at the beginning of March some were concerned that Russia could cut off access to the International Space Station (ISS) to NASA astronauts (see “A time of danger and opportunity for US-Russian space relations”, The Space Review, March 10, 2014), by the end of the month three crewmembers had returned from the station and three new crewmembers—two Russians and one American—launched to the station without incident.

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation,” the statement read, but the ISS is excluded.

“I am not aware of any threat” of Russia refusing to transport NASA astronauts to the station, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in testimony before the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on March 27. “I am comfortable because we talk to the Russians every day, to Roscosmos,” the Russian space agency. “We’re confident that they are just as interested and just as intent on maintaining that partnership as we are.”

That assessment was independent supported by Michael McFaul, who until February was the US ambassador to Russia before resigning to resume a career in academia. “I think US-Russia space cooperation would be one of the last areas of cooperation to be interrupted,” he told NBC News in an interview published March 29. “This cooperation has continued for decades through many ups and downs in US-Russian relations. It is also profitable for Russia.”

On Wednesday, April 2, though, those assessments changed—or, at least, appeared to change. A NASA internal memo issued Wednesday morning, and almost immediately leaked to the media, indicated that US-Russia cooperation outside of the ISS was coming to a halt. “Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted,” stated the memo by Michael F. O’Brien, NASA associate administrator for international and interagency relations. “At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted.”

What does that mean? “This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences,” the memo stated, but offered no other details about what programs would be affected by the decision.

NASA waited until Wednesday evening to formally confirm the ban on non-ISS cooperation with Russia, doing it in an unusual manner: rather that through a formal press release or other statement published on the NASA web site, it posted a one-paragraph note on the agency’s account on the Google+ social network. “Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation,” the statement read. “NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.”

While the ban on cooperation between NASA and the Russian government was played up in the media—sometimes overlooking the exemption regarding ISS operations—it wasn’t clear just how much of an effect it would have on either NASA or Roscosmos. There’s little cooperation between NASA and Russia on programs outside of the ISS, mostly in science programs. There are Russian instruments on a few NASA spacecraft, including the Curiosity Mars rover (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, or DAN) and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector, or LEND). NASA is cooperating on the European-Russian ExoMars mission, albeit at a low level (ironically, ESA turned to Russia after NASA dropped out of plans to cooperate with ESA on ExoMars). NASA has also planned to cooperate with Russia in the early phases of Russia’s proposed Venera-D mission to Venus.

The ban could also disrupt NASA’s participation in a science conference. The 40th Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) General Assembly, a major space sciences meeting, is planned for this August in Moscow. However, the policy announced Wednesday would appear to prevent NASA employees from attending, given the ban on travel to Russia.

“What’s the status with [the space] station? It’s the same as it was when I testified before Congress,” Bolden said Thursday. “The relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is good, it is healthy.”

Speaking before a joint meeting Thursday of the Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington, Bolden said he was unsure just how NASA participation in the COSPAR conference would be affected by the ban on cooperation. “I don’t know” if COSPAR will be affected by the new policy, Bolden said, but suggested that because it is an international meeting, it might be possible for NASA to still participate. (The internal memo about the policy excludes “multilateral meetings” that would include Russian participants, but only for those meetings held outside of Russia.)

“My advice is, if you’re planning to go to COSPAR, plan to go to COSPAR,” he said. “My instruction to my team is, unless I tell you otherwise, don’t stop doing anything that you’re doing.”

The effect of the policy on some of those NASA missions with Russian instruments may also be minimal. A NASA official told The Planetary Society on Friday that the policy won’t impact the DAN instrument on Curiosity which, while provided by Roscosmos, involves scientists working for other non-government organizations like the Space Research Institute (IKI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The limitation is in regards to NASA interaction with members of the Russian Federation—official government employees,” Bob Jacobs told the organization. “We don’t believe the science from Curiosity will be impacted by this guidance.”

And, Bolden emphasized at the SSB/ASEB meeting, ISS operations are exempt from the ban. “What’s the status with [the space] station? It’s the same as it was when I testified before Congress,” he said. “The relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is good, it is healthy.”

With the ISS unaffected by the new policy, and few other areas of cooperation between NASA and the Russian government that are, Wednesday’s policy is likely a symbolic one: a way to show the White House’s displeasure with Russia’s actions in a highly visible way (as witnessed by the media coverage the ban got last week), but one that has little substantive effect.

“As much as I would love to give direction to NASA, we don’t do that,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The timing of the policy, and the curious way it was announced, raised questions, although it appears to have been part of a broader effort by the White House. “The US government is taking a number of actions to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis consistent with US national interests,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a response to a question about the NASA policy at a press briefing.

A State Department spokesperson, though, said the NASA policy did not come specifically as a result of a request from the department. “I know there were some erroneous reports yesterday that the State Department had told them to do so,” said deputy spokesperson Marie Harf on Thursday. “As much as I would love to give direction to NASA, we don’t do that.”

While the ISS remains unaffected by this new policy, NASA continues to use the crisis as an opportunity to play up the importance of funding its commercial crew program, so that NASA can end its reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to and from the station. “NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space,” the agency said in its statement Wednesday announcing the ban on non-ISS cooperation with the Russian government. “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.” Of the 176 words in Wednesday’s statement, 133 discussed fully funding commercial crew, while only 43 words discussed the policy itself.

In his March 27 appearance before the House Science Committee, Bolden, in sometimes contentious exchanges with space subcommittee members, emphasized the importance he placed on commercial crew. “If the Congress chooses not to fund commercial crew, this nation has no plan” for getting astronauts to the ISS if Russia cuts off access to the station, something he emphasized he didn’t think would happen.

Moreover, he told members that should something happen to the ISS as a result of the current crisis or some other circumstance, he would recommend cancelling the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, two projects that have broad support among committee members. “I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion because without the International Space Station, I have no vehicle to do the medical tests, the technology development, and we’re fooling everybody if we think we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think that I need an SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station.”

“There are as many people over in Moscow as we have here in Washington, DC, who would see nothing better than to bring the International Space Station into the discussion on what’s going on in Ukraine, and it should not be,” Bolden said.

One key member of that committee said the current crisis requires a hard look at NASA’s budgets and priorities. “Thankfully, NASA currently maintains access to ISS. But as relations with Russia have been strained over the past few weeks, we can no longer afford to ignore the issues NASA faces,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, in a press release Friday.

“If we are serious about once more launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, we must make tough decisions within NASA’s budget,” Palazzo added. He didn’t specify what some of those “tough decisions” should be, but argued for stripping NASA of unnamed “costly and complex distractions.”

Yet, for all the rhetoric about replacing Russian Soyuz with commercial crew—something that won’t happen before 2017, under current NASA plans—and concerns about worsening relations between the US and Russia, operations of the ISS continue largely unaffected. NASA, for example, is continuing to provide live TV coverage of routine Russian activities on the ISS, including the undocking of a Progress cargo spacecraft from the station on Monday and the launch of a new Progress spacecraft on Wednesday.

Bolden said Thursday that, just before his appearance at the SSB/ASEB meeting, he had spoken by phone with the head of Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, who was in Kourou, French Guiana, for the launch of a European earth sciences satellite on a Soyuz rocket. “Right now, Mr. Ostapenko is just as concerned as I am that the politicians don’t take things and spin them out of control,” Bolden said. “There are as many people over in Moscow as we have here in Washington, DC, who would see nothing better than to bring the International Space Station into the discussion on what’s going on in Ukraine, and it should not be.”

And, for now, the ISS is not part of that discussion about reactions and responses to the Ukrainian crisis, a project deemed too important by NASA and the White House to risk losing. However, if the crisis worsens (and, this weekend, there were reports of unrest in eastern Ukraine allegedly involving, or otherwise supported by, Russian forces), that calculus could change, and not for the better.