Moscow-Washington ties lost in space

The International Space Station remains one place where Americans and Russians can find common ground. Source: NASA

The International Space Station remains one place where Americans and Russians can find common ground. Source: NASA

Sheer necessity will force space ties between the two rivals to continue in the near future.

On April 2, as a result of tensions over Ukraine, the U.S. government announced that it was suspending all joint rocket and space programs with Russia — with the exception of the use of the International Space Station.

“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,” officials said in a statement. “NASA and [Russian Space Agency] Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.”

In response, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for space and the defense industry, tweeted that the U.S. could “take advantage of the trampoline” to send astronauts to the I.S.S., alluding to the fact that the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only way to get equipment and personnel to and from the station.

The Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur cosmodrome carrying the ISS expedition, on Sept. 26. Source: Grigory Sysoev / RIA Novosti

While NASA had long been working on creating new spacecraft, the conflict with Russia seems to have sped up the
process. On Sept. 16, NASA
 announced that it has signed a multibillion-dollar contract with Boeing and SpaceX to construct spacecraft. According to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who announced the decision at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. plans to end “the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.”

Developing American spacecraft will not be cheap. Currently, the U.S. pays Russia $71 million for each flight, but the projects with Boeing and SpaceX will cost $4.2 and $2.8 billion, respectively.
Furthermore, such spacecraft are not developed overnight.

According to NASA Representative Joshua Buck, the agency does not intend to halt its collaboration with the Russian Space Agency. “Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station,” Buck said in a statement.

There is currently a contract in place for Russia to carry six American astronauts to the I.S.S. in the second half of 2016 and return them the following June. The cost of the contract is $424 million.

Russian space development has also suffered as a result of the tensions. The manufacturing time of Russian satellites has increased by 8–10 months because of restrictions on the supply of American components.

“Due to the sanctions, we will have to modify a series of instruments and equipment,” said Yury Vygonsky, the deputy general designer at Russian satellite firm Information Satellite Systems on Oct. 1.

According to Vyvonsky, the company is now forced to look for substitutes for American components in China, South Korea and other Asian countries.

Rogozin, for his part, says that collaboration between Russia and the U.S. in the International Space Station will not end in 2024 as currently scheduled, but four years earlier. He said that Russia will take the money saved by pulling out of I.S.S. obligations and direct it towards more innovative space projects.

Rocket wars

Russia-American cooperation on rocket technology is also suffering as a result of sanctions. Currently Russia supplies the U.S. with engines that power the Atlas V rocket, which carries most U.S. satellites into space. In May, Rogozin announced that, in response to sanctions enacted by the U.S., Russia could halt the supply of RD-180 and K-33 rocket engines to the U.S.

In response, the Pentagon requested a report from an independent panel examining American reliance on Russian rockets and the potential for developing U.S. rockets. Air Force General Howard Mitchell, retired, who led the advisory panel, noted in the report that without the Russian RD engines, the U.S. would have to cancel satellite launches after 2016. An additional report is expected by the beginning of November with recommendations on developing U.S. rocket engine technology.

The final frontier?

Currently, both Russia and the U.S. are making plans to fly to Mars. Unlike politicians, the representatives from space industries in both countries would like to collaborate on developing technology for a flight to the Red Planet.

“Surely we intend to continue interacting with the U.S. and other countries that are interested in exploring near and distant space,” said Igor Burenkov, Director of Informational Policy and Mass Media at Russia’s United Rocket and Space Corporation. “Projects dedicated to the exploration of the solar system, as well as the flight to Mars, will definitely be international — it is important for all of humanity.”

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