U.S.-Russia tension over Ukraine could hinder space program

05/17/2014 8:25 PM

05/17/2014 8:26 PM

The escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine have reached a new altitude: space.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the two super powers set aside their mistrust and agreed to build a massive orbiting outpost as a symbol of a new era of cooperation in space exploration. But now that partnership is under serious strain.

After Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin this week said his nation might no longer allow U.S. astronauts access to its launch vehicles and may use the International Space Station without American participation, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday pressed NASA for answers about the how the U.S. could respond.

Since the retirement of the space shuttle, Russia has provided launches for U.S. astronauts, for $71 million each.

“Dropping out of ISS is a high-profile move on Russia’s part,” said Marco A. Caceres, space analyst for the aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Va. “They’re pulling the rug out from under the Americans. It’s a move of national pride that plays well in Russia.”

Indeed, after railing against U.S. sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Rogozin, chief of the Russian space and defense sectors, suggested that “the U.S.A. … bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Rogozin’s threat is too significant for the U.S. to ignore, said Loren B. Thompson, an aerospace and defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“The central assumptions of the Obama administration space policy are no longer valid,” he said.

The space station is just one example of how the mess in Ukraine is undermining aerospace trade between the two leaders in space travel. Russia has threatened to suspend exports of rocket engines, which are used to help launch U.S. Air Force satellites. And it has threatened to suspend cooperation on navigational systems that depend on outposts in Russia.

The U.S. helped fund the Russian program in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And when the shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry in 2003, killing seven, the Russians agreed to help ferry U.S. astronauts back and forth to space.

The $100-billion orbital outpost, often cited as the most expensive machine ever built, has a series of modules and power systems, some Russian, some American and others from a range of international partners. The U.S. hardware produces most of the station’s electricity, but the Russian propulsion system helps keep the station in orbit.

Now, that combination of hardware could cause a major headache. Under legal agreements, the U.S. has an upper hand in controlling the space station, but Rogozin said his nation could operate its modules independently of the U.S.

In a House hearing at the end of March, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s partner is not Russia itself, but rather the Russian space agency, a distinction that many analysts dismissed.

The House science committee sent a letter to Bolden on Thursday seeking an assessment of a Russian withdrawal from the space station program after 2020. While the partnership is not yet broken, the committee wants to know what options the U.S. has if Rogozin’s threats become reality.

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