Space Cooperation Latest Battleground in U.S.-Russia Showdown

Space Cooperation Latest Battleground in U.S.-Russia Showdown
Photo: The International Space Station as photographed from the space shuttle Atlantis, July 19, 2011 (NASA photo).
As the diplomatic showdown between the United States and Russia drags on, both governments are seeking ways to exert leverage and impose costs on each other. This is having consequences for areas of longer-term cooperation between the two countries. One of these areas is space. Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s space program as well as its defense industry—and a target of U.S. sanctions—announced new limits on space cooperation with the United States at a press conference last week. Rogozin said Russia would not cooperate with the United States on the International Space Station (ISS) after 2020, though he indicated that Russia would continue to use the ISS for its own purposes. Furthermore, Russia would ban the United States from using Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. military satellites. The United States currently relies on Russian capabilities in both of these areas. Rogozin also said that Russia would shut down GPS sites in Russia unless there was progress on the placement of sites for Glonass, a Russian GPS alternative, on U.S. territory. Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation explains in an email to Trend Lines that “unless something extremely bad happens,” the United States will continue to partner with Russia through the current ISS agreement—which also includes Canada, Japan and the European Union—through the end of the decade. “The question is what happens after 2020,” he says. The Obama administration had stated its desire to extend the agreement at least through 2024, but doing so would require agreement and funding from all participant countries. “I think the probability of extending that agreement beyond 2020 was already unlikely,” Weeden says, “and the increased tensions make it even more unlikely.” Rogozin’s statements drew a response from several Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Committee chair Lamar Smith of Texas, along with the chair and vice-chair of the space subcommittee, sent a letter to President Barack Obama warning of the consequences should Russia make good on Rogozin’s threat. “With the retirement of the space shuttle and the cancellation of the Constellation program,” they wrote, referring to NASA’s manned spaceflight programs, the United States “currently has no domestic ability to transport our astronauts to and from” the ISS. “If Mr. Rogozin’s statement proves to be accurate,” they warned, “we will have to take a step back and evaluate the costs and benefits of maintaining the ISS beyond 2020 without our Russian partners.” On the issue of U.S. access to Russian rocket engines, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) released a statement last week claiming that it had “contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption.” The ULA is a venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that provides satellite launch services to U.S. government agencies including NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office. “The wheels are already in motion” for the United States to move away from foreign dependence for national security and commercial space launch, Weeden observes. But there are limits to what the United States can do on its own, he adds, especially in the area of human spaceflight. “I don't see any scenarios where the U.S. does anything major in human spaceflight in the future without international cooperation,” Weeden says. The United States will need partners, beyond its traditional allies, “that can bring real capabilities and real money to the table.” In practice this would mean cooperating with China, Russia and India. Congress has prohibited NASA from cooperating with China, and the Indian program lacks important capabilities. So “if Russia is now off the table due to the political tensions,” Weeden says, “I think that really calls into question whether or not we will be able to do big, human spaceflight projects in the future.” He adds that Russia faces a similar need for international partners in its own space program. Russia isn’t the only country that can target the rocket capabilities of its rivals. As the Daily Beast reported yesterday, Alabama Republican Mike Rogers, chair of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, plans to introduce an amendment to the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that would put pressure on a Ukrainian firm to cease providing technical support to Russian long-range ballistic missiles. As Trend Lines reported earlier this month, certain Soviet legacy defense and high-technology firms wound up in independent Ukraine, including those associated with the Russian nuclear arsenal. Russia places a high premium on continued access to those capabilities. Even as the United States and Russia are drifting apart on space, Russia and China are forging closer ties, at least rhetorically. Rogozin and his Chinese counterpart have been discussing several space-related projects, and last week the two sides discussed creating a new working group for “strategic Russian-Chinese space cooperation projects,” according to the Russian government-owned ITAR-TASS news agency. It is still unclear how such a partnership would strengthen either country's space program, but Rogozin, at least, appears bullish about the prospects of Russia-China cooperation more generally, saying on Twitter yesterday that cooperation between the United States and Europe would "pale in comparison" to what Russia and China will eventually agree upon. Still, the U.S. will almost certainly be sharing a space station with Russia for the rest of the decade.

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