On Wednesday morning, the sprawling Russian corporation that oversees the country’s space activities, Roscosmos, issued a statement from its general director on Twitter that appeared to speak both to NASA as well as Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“We value highly our professional relations with NASA, but as an (ethnic) Russian and a citizen of Russia I am very unhappy with the openly hostile policy of the USA toward my country,” said the statement by Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Russian space policy and interfaces directly with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
What prompted the statement from Rogozin is not immediately clear. On Monday, he tweeted, “Glory to Russia” following Putin’s speech on Ukraine and Russia’s right to occupy territories of the former Soviet Union. Rogozin is a member of Putin’s inner circle, having previously served as a deputy prime minister in the government before leading Roscosmos.
Генеральный директор Роскосмоса Дмитрий Рогозин заявил, что Госкорпорация дорожит профессиональными отношениями с NASA. pic.twitter.com/MIg6XBu2fa
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) February 23, 2022
The escalating tensions between Russia and the Western world, including the United States, have raised concerns among spaceflight officials about the fate of the International Space Station, which is a partnership led by the United States and Russia with participation by European nations, Japan, and Canada. The space station cannot operate without power from the US segment and propulsion from visiting Russian vehicles.
So far, the partnership appears to be weathering these concerns. At a seminar on Wednesday, Valda Vikmanis-Keller, who directs the Office of Space Affairs, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs for the US State Department, said relations are ongoing. Two NASA astronauts are presently training in Russia, with five more scheduled to go, while three Russian cosmonauts are training in Houston, Vikmanis-Keller said. European officials said relations on joint spaceflight projects are continuing.
And a spokeswoman for NASA’s Bill Nelson, Jackie McGuinness, told Ars, “NASA continues working with Roscosmos and our other international partners in Canada, Europe, and Japan to maintain safe and continuous International Space Station operations.”
But Rogozin is a wild card. In 2014, in his role as deputy chairman over Russia’s defense and space industries, Rogozin was among the first seven people sanctioned by the United States following the Crimean crisis. At the time, with NASA’s space shuttle having been retired and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle still in development, NASA astronauts could not get to the space station any other way than aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles. After his sanction, Rogozin lashed out, saying that maybe NASA astronauts should instead use a trampoline to reach space.
This comment would later be turned around and used to mock Rogozin. After SpaceX delivered two NASA astronauts to the space station for the first time in 2020, company founder Elon Musk said, “The trampoline is working.” Recently, Russian and US officials agreed that Roscosmos and NASA would barter seats for future flights, with NASA astronauts riding on the Soyuz in exchange for Russians launching on Crew Dragon as early as this fall.
Now, Rogozin is in a difficult situation. Preserving Russia’s partnership with NASA is important because, absent the International Space Station, his country really has no human spaceflight program. However, Putin clearly is bent upon violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. So Rogozin’s statement appears to be an effort to both placate NASA as well as Putin—not an easy task.
In all likelihood, the Ukraine conflict will have to become far worse before it poses a risk to the space station program, said Robert Pearlman, a journalist and co-author of Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space.
“Neither Russia nor the United States have much to gain by withdrawing from their partnership in space,” he told Ars. “An argument could be made that Russia has even more to lose, as Roscosmos’ budget hinges more on the space station than does NASA’s. If there is any change in the near term, it might be a delay to launching cosmonauts on US commercial vehicles and resuming flying NASA astronauts on Soyuz, but even that could carry disadvantages for both parties.”
Setting aside the geopolitical tensions surrounding Ukraine, NASA and Roscosmos still have a lot of issues they must work out regarding future cooperation. The White House has recently agreed with NASA that it would like to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station to 2030 in order to continue important biomedical research and other activities in microgravity. Russia has not formally agreed to such an extension yet.
There are also questions about deep-space exploration. NASA has established the Artemis Program to explore the Moon through a series of human and robotic missions, and the agency has signed a number of partners around the world, including many International Space Station partners. But Russia has rejected the Artemis program and said it will probably join China’s lunar exploration efforts.
Previously, Nelson had intended to travel to Moscow to discuss these issues and more with Rogozin during the first half of 2022. However, McGuinness said this week that the NASA administrator has not yet made any travel plans.