Russian Relations Jeopardize Future of International Space Station

Unless diplomatic relations improve, Russia will eventually bar the U.S. from using Russia’s portion of the space station — a move that would make the ISS inhabitable for American astronauts.

by / May 16, 2014
Floating just below the International Space Station, astronaut Nicholas Patrick puts finishing touches on a newly installed cupola space windows. Patrick served as mission specialist on board the space shuttle Endeavor's mission to the ISS. Flickr/NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

In a retaliatory response to American sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, formerly of the Ukraine, Russian officials say they may ban U.S. astronauts from the International Space Station after 2020 while investigating alternative space exploration prospects.

The halting restrictions were voiced by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who was reported on May 13 to condemn the U.S. sanctions, and to simultaneously define terms for Russia’s own punitive measures against the U.S.

Rogozin said that unless diplomatic relations improve, Russia will eventually bar the U.S. from using Russia’s portion of the space station — a move that would make the ISS inhabitable for American astronauts. He further said that Russia will deny the U.S. from launching military satellites with rocket engines exported from Russia. Other punitive actions, he noted, involved suspension of U.S. access to Russian GPS satellite navigation system sites starting June 1 that are used, among other tasks, to monitor seismic activity.

Complicating matters, transportation to and from the space station also has been jeopardized. Following the closure of the U.S. Space Shuttle project, the Russian spacecraft Soyuz is the only vehicle to ferry American astronauts to the ISS.

“Russian rockets will remain the only means of delivering astronauts to the ISS for the next few years. The United States has no such spacecraft, and so dependence on Russia for extending the work of the ISS, although mutual, is larger for the United States,” Rogozin said.

A blow to Washington’s well-established space collaboration with Russia, the gestures hamper U.S. interests to keep the $100 billion and 15-nation space station project in use until at least 2024 — four years beyond the ISS’ agreed target date. Rogozin, who was accompanied by Oleg Ostapenko, the head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency, said they would support the station until 2020.

“We’ve repeatedly warned our colleagues at the political and professional levels (via the Russian Federal Space Agency) that sanctions are always a boomerang. They always come back around and are simply inappropriate in such sensitive spheres as cooperation in space exploration,” Rogozin said.

He likened U.S. actions against the country to “releasing a bull in a china shop,” and alluded to U.S. officials as the charging bull. It was also indicated that Russia did not consider their withdrawal of services as sanctions against the U.S.

“Sanctions are not on our list; we have enough problems of our own. So we’ll try to do our best to avoid becoming a bull in a china shop,” Rogzin said. “In fact, we’re going to wrap the fragile china in paper and soft fabric to keep it from getting smashed by the bull.”

The U.S. sanctions Rogozin was especially concerned with were freezes on export licenses in Russia’s tech sector, which supports space endeavors. In opposition of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama signed a series of sanctions against Russia in March that were joined by sanctions from the European Union. Many sanctions specifically targeted friends and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, denying exports, freezing assets and banning Visa approvals.

Of note, Rogozin is an official that was specifically targeted by both EU and U.S. sanctions.

Notwithstanding Russia’s and Rogozin’s response, American officials appear undaunted and are already preparing to institute additional sanctions should Russia disrupt Ukranian elections set for May 25.

"If Russia or its proxies disrupt the elections, stand in the way of the Ukrainian people being able to exercise their vote, that is when and if there would be additional sanctions," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to reporters on May 15 — after a meeting in London with representatives in Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Under the turbulent climate of Russian and U.S. relations, the future of the ISS is likely to remain in question. However, whether the quagmire continues or not, Rogozin said Russia isn’t waiting to find out and has planned to investigate other collaborative alternatives to the ISS space exploration program, projects that he said will ensure greater stability. This summer the Russian Federal Space Agency will forward plans to the government for prospective exploration projects in near and outer space.

“After 2020, we’d like to use these and the intellectual and production resources for the implementation of more forward-looking space projects,” he said. “These could even be international projects, but it would be us who would choose our partners and decide with whom to cooperate in near and outer space exploration.”

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website, there are currently three astronauts aboard the ISS. They include one American, Commander Steve Swanson, and Russian astronauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. The three-man crew is expected to return this September.