Tensions over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea spilled into space yesterday after Nasa suspended cooperation with Russia, prompting worries about the future of the International Space Station (ISS).
Days after an insistence by the head of Nasa, Charlie Bolden, that its relationship with Russia remained unaffected by political strains – and 39 years after the first US-Soviet collaboration in orbit – the US space agency announced that it was severing “the majority” of contact with its international partner.
Operation of the ISS – a $100 billion orbiting laboratory currently crewed by two American astronauts, three Russians and one Japanese – is exempt from the sanctions.
However, the decision to withdraw all other ties raised concerns about the potential for tit-for-tat moves that could put a stranglehold on its operations and other US space interests. Maintaining cordiality over the ISS – a symbol of post Cold War cooperation and in recent months the subject of a growing campaign for Nobel Peace Prize nomination – remains critical, experts said yesterday.
“We and the Russians have a very deep an integrated relationship. We are reliant on them as they are on us,” said Professor Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“Divorce is not an option,” he added.
Having retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, Nasa is, however, currently reliant on Russia for ferrying American astronauts to orbit, at a cost of $71 million a time.
The US also depends on certain Russian technologies such as RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rockets, America’s primary vehicle for launching both military and civil payloads into orbit including spy satellites, weather-monitoring devices, science, communications and global positioning systems. Though the US currently has a two-year supply of the engines, and the blueprints for making more itself, establishing domestic manufacturing capabilities could take up to five years.
Nasa has farmed out to the private sector the task of developing new space taxis to carry American astronauts into space, but the first manned flight is not expected until at least 2017. The situation is considered embarrassing at Nasa, which yesterday accused Congress of hobbling the process with its failure to grant adequate funding for swifter development.
“Had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year,” the agency complained in a statement issued yesterday.
“With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from US soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions fo dollars to Russia. It’s that simple.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, accused Washington of raising “scores of problems” by imposing sanctions on its dialogue and cooperation with Moscow in protest at Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Areas affected include humanitarian, cultural, consular and even weather-forecasting partnerships, he complained.
“Obviously, the US authorities have been seriously rattled, he said, teasing: “How can I advise our American partners in this situation?
“I can advise them to spend more time outdoors, practice yoga, try a separate nutrition diet and maybe even watch a comedy series on TV rather than work themselves and others up, knowing in advance that ‘the ship has sailed’ and children’s tantrums, tears and hysterics will not help.”