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NASA-Russia alliance in space is shaken by events on planet Earth

“No, I don’t like
it,” Rogozin, who initially downplayed the threat of the debris, said in a
recent interview. He noted his concern “that there is a lot of debris scattered
across the orbit.”

While the danger to
the space station’s astronauts has waned, the diplomatic impact of Russia’s
military action in orbit looms large. The Nov 15 weapon test prompted a rare
intersection of two components of bilateral ties between the US and Russia: on
the one hand, the bravado and provocations that define their testy military
relationship; on the other, long-standing amity between NASA and the Russian
space agency.

For two decades, the
space station has been a symbol of diplomatic triumph between the US and
Russia, typically insulated from tensions on Earth. Russian astronauts
travelled to orbit on the space shuttle, and when it stopped flying, the
Russian Soyuz spacecraft became NASA’s only ride to orbit for nearly a decade.
The station also requires the two space powers’ cooperation to function. The
Russian segment depends on electricity generated by US solar panels, while the
station as a whole depends on Russian equipment to control its orbit.

But now, the
antisatellite test, as well as mounting tensions between the US and Russia over
Ukraine and other matters, are complicating the decades-old friendship between
NASA and Roscosmos. As the two agencies try to secure a pair of agreements that
would sustain their relationship for years to come, they are finding that
affairs in orbit cannot avoid being linked to conflict on the ground.

The agreements have
been in the works for years. One would allow Russian astronauts to fly on
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for trips to the space station, in exchange for
seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for American astronauts. The other would
cement the NASA-Roscosmos space station alliance through 2030.

Both agreements
require sign-off from officials in the White House whose chief concern is
defusing military conflict with Russia over Ukraine. They must also go through
the US State Department, where officials are mulling options to deter Russia
from launching antisatellite weapons in the future. Agreements to further space
cooperation are becoming entangled with reactions to these other matters.

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“I hope this project
will not be politicised,” Rogozin said of the agreements, “but you can never be
sure.”

Rogozin seemed to
acknowledge that the future of the space relationship is in the hands of the
nations’ leaders.

“In the sense of
getting this program approved,” he said, “Roscosmos has full trust in the
Russian president and the Russian government.”

Rogozin, a former
deputy prime minister who oversaw Russia’s arms industry, has direct experience
with the fractious side of the US-Russia relationship. The US sanctioned him
personally in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. That has precluded him from entering
the United States and complicated his ability to meet with his American
counterparts.

Bill Nelson, the
former senator from Florida serving as NASA administrator under President Joe
Biden, called Russia’s missile test “pitiful” at the time. But he softened his
tone during later talks with Rogozin, voicing concerns about the new cloud of
space debris but assuming his counterpart did not know in advance that Russia’s
military would launch the antisatellite test.

Nelson said in an
interview that he thinks Rogozin “is between a rock and a hard place, because
there’s only so much that he can say” about the weapon test. “He’s had to be
quite demure, which I understand completely,” Nelson added.

The day before the
test, a delegation of senior NASA officials, including the agency’s associate
administrator, Bob Cabana, flew to Moscow for face-to-face negotiations with
their Russian counterparts. Through days of meetings after the test, and over
dinner with Rogozin, they affirmed their desire to lock in the agreement to
barter astronaut flights and extend the space station partnership beyond 2024
through 2030.

“We have an intent to
do both of those. We didn’t sign any agreements, but it was a very productive
discussion,” said Cabana, who was dispatched to Moscow for the talks in part
because he is well known to Russian space officials as a former NASA astronaut.

Rogozin gave NASA no
hint that the test was coming. He said during the recent interview that the
Ministry of Defense did not consult Roscosmos beforehand, which he chalked up
to the Russian military having its own space-tracking capabilities to determine
whether the missile strike would endanger the space station.

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But he added: “I’m
not going to tell you everything I know.”

With tensions over
the weapon test looming, Rogozin announced earlier this month that Anna Kikina,
the only woman in Russia’s astronaut corps, would be the first Russian under
the agreement to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule next fall. He said in the
interview that under the coming agreement, he expects to fly “at least one
integrated crew a year” from 2022 through 2024. Kikina and other Russian
astronauts have already visited sites in the US for training while the
negotiations continue.

Ultimately, though,
Rogozin said Roscosmos could not agree to an extension of Russia’s presence on
the space station unless the US removes sanctions on two Russian companies
added to a US blacklist last year because of their suspected military ties. The
sanctions, he says, prevent Russia from building parts needed to allow the
space station to survive through 2030.

“There really is no
politics behind what I’m saying,” Rogozin said. “In order to give us a
technical capability to produce whatever is needed for this extension, these
restrictions need to be lifted first.”

Nelson of NASA says
he has talked to the White House about the agreements to swap astronaut seats
with the Russians and extend the space station. With the antisatellite test and
other geopolitical tensions in the foreground, he indicated little progress had
been made in getting the deals approved.

“All of this is to be
determined,” he said.

The agreement to swap
astronauts also must be reviewed by the State Department, which is weighing
options for a broader response to Russia’s weapon test.

A State Department
spokesperson declined to discuss the potential measures, saying “we do not
preview our response options.” But he pointed to remarks this month from
Kathleen Hicks, deputy defence secretary: “We would like to see all nations
agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris.”

Two US officials, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss tentative plans, said that could
mean calling for an international moratorium on testing destructive
antisatellite weapons, perhaps during the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
next year, rather than inserting antisatellite weapon-related language into
NASA’s agreements with Russia.

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Rogozin said he did
not think Russia would conduct another antisatellite test.

“Whether there will
be other tests of a similar kind? More likely no rather than yes,” he said.

But even if the
antisatellite weapon irritant fades, NASA and Roscosmos’ alliance has been
gradually scaled back, with the relationship now focused primarily on the space
station.

In the 1990s and
2000s, the US saw the space station as a crucial place “to reach out to Russia
to build new relationships with them post-Cold War, and to keep their aerospace
industry gainfully employed doing good things, and not making bad things” for
countries like Iran and North Korea, said Brian Weeden, an analyst at the
Secure World Foundation, a think tank.

Those conditions have
changed.

NASA stopped paying
up to $90 million per astronaut seat on Russia’s Soyuz capsule when SpaceX’s
Crew Dragon started flying Americans to space in 2020, severing a key source of
revenue for the Russian agency. Acting on orders from Congress to wean the US
space sector off Russia’s space industry, a US rocket company this year stopped
buying Russian-made rocket engines, eliminating another source of income. And
Russia is not among the cadre of US allies working with NASA to send astronauts
back to the moon in the next decade. It has partnered instead with China on its
moon program.

Although cooperation
on the space station could be extended, it would likely codify the final
chapter in the civil US-Russia space relationship, Weeden said. NASA is aiming
to stimulate a market for privately built orbital research outposts that would
eventually replace the space station, a move that could pluck one of the last
strings binding the two partners together.

“The ISS
relationship,” Weeden said, “came out of a unique set of circumstances that I
think have passed.”

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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