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The time may have come to reconsider the International Space Station partnership. (credit: NASA)

What would FDR do?


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Imagine it’s the start of World War II in Europe and the US and The Third Reich have a mutual science base. We are not in active combat, but the Third Reich is gobbling up Poland. Would then President Franklin D. Roosevelt have kept that association?

The entire foundation of the space station is international agreements. Russian leadership has indicated by its flagrant, meritless invasion of a sovereign country that these agreements, based on international law, are now without foundation.

The International Space Station is flying today because of the association of the Russian Federation’s space program with that of The United States. Politically, survival of the station after a decade of NASA bungling, was a near thing. Without that association the station would not exist.

The space station has, at several critical times, been singularly dependent on Russian support to maintain it. If the US and the Russian Federation go our separate ways in space, the partners on the US side will have to take aggressive action to maintain it.

That should not be the issue. The issue is a basic and self-evident truth. Should the association, which has proved amicable and mutual in the past, be continued in the face of brutal Russian aggression in Ukraine?

The answer is clear. The entire foundation of the space station is international agreements. Russian leadership has indicated by its flagrant, meritless invasion of a sovereign country that these agreements, based on international law, are now without foundation.

If that is not enough, the Russian leadership has learned to lie without shame. Vladimir Putin’s public speech justifying wanton aggression was without a scintilla of historical truth. It was not shading or emphasizing points of fact, as all politics do. It was a cornucopia of lies reminiscent to what the leader of the Third Reich used to start World War II in Poland.

This is not isolated to Putin. Russian space leadership has wantonly lied about events on the space station. The accusation that an American astronaut drilled a hole in a Russian spacecraft requires a very high standard of supportive facts to even be uttered. Nothing has been offered but the accusation.

We tolerated this. It was as if the crazy uncle in the family said something silly. We all tried to look away and pretend it did not happen. We should no longer.

It will be technically difficult to divorce this marriage. The infidelity to the fundamental order, which has kept the peace since World War II, by the Russian leadership has ended it. If the US side flinches, future historians will be as puzzled by this as today’s historians are by the actions after the Reich stormed into the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.

The current Russian government are the master race of our time—international law does not apply to them. If the strong will not stand up for the weak, we are as complicit as the bullies. President Joseph R. Biden said it forcefully: “America stands up to bullies.” It is time to stand.

The Biden administration should immediately remove all US astronauts in training in Russia and send the Russians in training in the US home. All exchange of funds or services should be ended. The administration should announce a date certain when the hatches on ISS will be shut, and the links severed if the Russians are not out of the Ukraine. The partners on the US side should immediately formulate plans to separate the station at the FGB/PMA 1 docking.

American, European, and Japanese industry that have produced vehicles capable of being modified to take over Russian equipment roles should be pushed to come up with alternatives. This starts with keeping the recently launched Cygnus spacecraft at the station for reboost purposes.

The administration should announce a date certain when the hatches on ISS will be shut, and the links severed if the Russians are not out of the Ukraine.

All alternatives, short and long term, should be explored. If necessary, even the use of SLS should be considered, diverted from a lunar goal that is ambiguous. There is a service module on Orion that could be useful.

On ISS there are exciting opportunities emerging with the addition of private industry modules to the station. These point the way toward the development necessary to commercialize low Earth orbit. If this is the last decade of the ISS, it should be with partners both government and private who are truly and truthfully geared to that goal.

Nations, their people, and organizations who do not share fundamental values of truth and respect for law have no place in this effort. Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin and its space organization have demonstrated their infidelity to these principles. Until they do, we have no business with them.

If we keep our partnership, our silence is just as much acquiescence to Russian brutality as “peace in our time” was to that of the Third Reich. What will we do?


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