Across the surface of Earth, Russia and America have been engaged in direct and indirect conflict for decades. Above the Earth, however, both have inspired the world and each other through the peaceful scientific exploration of space. Beginning in 1975 with the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, both nations began cooperating directly with one another toward this singular, noble endeavor and have continued to do so until present day with the International Space Station (ISS).
Joint US-Russian space exploration has so far weathered the demagoguery of politicians from both sides over the years, but the recent conflict in Ukraine is once again putting this relationship to the test. Little will be gained if this cooperation ends, despite attempts across the Western media to claim otherwise.
The International Space Station
The ISS is an artificial habitat circling the Earth at an altitude of over 260 miles (over 420 km) that has been permanently manned for over 13 years. It represents a stepping stone in what will be the most profound leap in human civilization’s history, the permanent colonization of space and mankind’s accession to a multiplanetary species. The ISS is constructed primarily of Russian and American modules, but also includes European and Japanese components. It was built drawing from experience gained from the Russian space station Mir. Mir also served as a platform for joint US-Russian space exploration, with eleven space shuttle missions being flown to it, establishing many of the protocols used today aboard the ISS.
A combination of NASA space shuttle missions and Russian Soyuz rocket launches had previously worked in tandem to send and retrieve astronauts and cosmonauts from the ISS. With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, Russia’s Soyuz program is the only means to move people to and from the ISS. While a combination of automated US, Russian, European, and Japanese cargo ships keep the ISS supplied with food, water, and equipment, without Russia’s Soyuz program, the ISS will by necessity become abandoned.
Ukraine Crisis Reaching to the Stars?
A US-backed uprising spearheaded by armed Neo-Nazis overthrew the elected government of Ukraine over the course of 2013-2014’s Euromaidan demonstrations. The attempt to overthrow the government of Ukraine came as the nation was backing away from integration with the European Union and away from a possible membership within NATO that was likely to follow. The US-engineered Euromaidain uprising, eerily familiar to the similarly US-backed Orange Revolution in 2004, sought to overturn yet another of Moscow’s allies and place NATO right on Russia’s border.
Russia’s response was supporting a referendum in Crimea that led to the region’s integration with the Russian Federation. Following success in Crimea, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk followed suit, carrying out referendums that overwhelmingly decided on greater autonomy from Kiev and closer ties with neighboring Russia.
When it became clear that Ukraine would not be overturned as easily as Washington had hoped, it immediately turned to sanctions aimed at Russia. Among these sanctions included a temporary injunction barring the purchase of Russian-made engines used on America’s Atlas 5 rockets. It also included a declaration made by NASA claiming it was cutting ties to its Russian counterparts for all cooperation except what was required for the space station.
The Guardian in an article titled “Nasa cuts ties with Russia over Ukraine crisis, except for space station,” stated that, “after insisting that space relations would not be altered by earthly politics, Nasa on Wednesday said it was severing ties with Russia over the Ukraine crisis, except for the International Space Station.” The article would elaborate on just what ties were being severed. It stated, “Nasa employees cannot travel to Russia or host visitors until further notice. They are also barred from emailing or holding teleconferences with their Russian counterparts because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, according to a memo sent to workers.”
The unfortunate memo sought to poison what both Russian and American technicians, scientists, astronauts, and cosmonauts consider to be a constructive and enjoyable collaboration. NASA administrator Charles Boden would even say before the US House Subcommittee on Space that, “I am not aware of any threat, and I am comfortable because we talk to the Russians every day,” before insisting that, “our partner is not Russia, our partner is Roscosmos. We’re confident that they are just as interested and just as intent on maintaining that partnership as we are.”
Boden’s sentiments prove that while special interests within the United States seek to poison Russian relations on this planet and beyond, they are thankfully finding it difficult to do so even within the United States government itself.
Threats and Counter-Threats
In response to threatened sanctions and the prospect of severing all cooperation with Russia, Russia reminded the United States that their only means of putting astronauts into orbit is their Soyuz program. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin countered US threats by suggesting US astronauts might use a “trampoline” to get into orbit, a direct jab to America’s current inability to launch astronauts into space.
Deputy PM Rogozin also suggested that cooperation with the United States regarding the International Space Station might not extend to 2024 as was previously expected. In light of recent tensions, Rogozin suggested such a partnership might end as early as 2020.
Across US media, attempts have been made to salvage what was yet another round of threatened sanctions that ultimately failed. Some writers claimed that America’s dependency on Russian rockets was coming to an end, citing that by 2017, the US would once again be capable of manned space missions. However, under the best of circumstances, that 2017 target is still 3 years away.
Others have claimed that private space companies like Space X and Orbital Sciences now have an opportunity to take over Russia’s role. Unfortunately for those hoping for US sanctions to “bite,” both Russia’s and America’s aerospace industries know that taking over Russia’s role is still years away. The crew of the International Space Station needs transportation now, and Russia is the only country capable of providing it.
The Conundrum America Faces
Ending NASA’s cooperation with Russia sought to solve a particularly acute problem US policymakers had created for themselves. They attempted to portray Russia as an implacable enemy akin to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, annexing foreign territory and posing as a dangerous menace to global stability. However, it was still depending on Russia to send its astronauts into space, and cooperating closely with Russia on a wide range of other space-related objectives, including training, research and development. How could US policymakers convince the world that Russia was the next Nazi Germany if it was still working so closely with Russia, and in particular, so dependent on them for the continuation of their own manned space program?
NASA’s cooperation with Russia should be, and in reality is, constructive and economical. NASA’s retirement of the space shuttle fleet was not done with perpetual dependency on Russia in mind. Rather it was with Russia’s ability to be a dependable and constructive partner in mind that NASA decided to this temporary dependency while it developed a replacement for its shuttle fleet.
The current conundrum for policymakers in Washington is that it they are attempting to portray Russia as the villain when NASA has decided long ago that Russia indeed is not a villain, but rather a dependable and capable partner with whom to pursue the noblest of mankind’s endeavors. The people in NASA working with their counterparts in Russia’s Roscosmos appear to have a much wider and bolder vision of humanity’s future than the spiteful shortsighted decision makers in Washington today.
Not only do many across NASA hold their Russian counterparts in great esteem (and vice versa) but they appear in no hurry to heed “memos” from policymakers looking to make short-term gains in Ukraine at the expense of long-term gains among the stars. Furthermore, the practicality of severing all ties with Russia in terms of space exploration is simply inconceivable. The International Space Station and the Earth-bound infrastructure used to support it as well as train astronauts and cosmonauts ahead of missions, depends entirely on NASA and Russia’s continued cooperation.
To paint Russia as today’s villain and thus barring Americans from traveling to Russia and working side-by-side with their Russian counterparts would eventually require abandoning the International Space Station all together. A monumental accomplishment sent to the scrap bin of history because of shortsighted political spite will most likely not help Washington in its already uphill battle in Ukraine today, and in the long-term, will have generations shaking their heads in disbelief at the staggering spite that hindered, not helped humanity forward..
Ulson Gunnar is a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”