WASHINGTON – A NASA official announced yesterday that the agency would be cutting the majority of its contact with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. Citing Russia’s “ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the Crimea crisis, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien confirmed that communications between NASA and Russian officials would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of cooperation on the International Space Station.
This break comes at an inopportune time for NASA; having retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts into space. While NASA has encouraged the development of private American spaceflight companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has sent a number of resupply missions to the ISS over the past several years, Russia is currently the only provider of manned launches, charging US and European astronauts up to $70 million per trip.
Many in the agency have expressed frustration over the current state of affairs. Said one anonymous NASA scientist, “NASA’s goals aren’t political. This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration… You’re telling me there is nothing better?” The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post by NASA administrator Charles Bolden criticizing Congress about the level of funding for US spaceflight. As Bolden wrote, budgets “are about choices. The choice moving forward is between fully funding [President Obama’s] request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.”
NASA has few other options for getting its personnel into orbit in the near future. Although China has developed the capacity for manned spaceflight, current restrictions prevent NASA from hosting Chinese citizens due to fears of technological espionage. Development of the European Space Agency’s Crew Space Transport Vehicle isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and India’s human spaceflight program is only in its beginning stages.
Although perhaps better known for the competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century, the relationship between the Russian and American space agencies has recently been one of productive collaboration. From the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 to NASA’s visits to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, scientists have managed to mostly avoid the political tensions between the two countries.