NASA-Russia alliance shaken by events on Planet Earth

When the Russian military blasted an old satellite to the screen last month with an anti-satellite missile, American officials reacted angrily, warning that thousands of tiny pieces of new orbital debris could pose a danger. danger to astronauts on the International Space Station. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, seems to share that frustration.

“No, I don’t like it,” said Mr. Rogozin, who initially downplayed the threat from the debris, 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 lessened, the diplomatic impact of Russia’s military action in orbit remains enormous. The November 15 weapons test produced a rare intersection between the two components of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia: on the one hand the courage and provocations that define the longstanding military relationship. their long; on the other hand, the long-standing close relationship between NASA and the Russian space agency.

For two decades, the space station has been a symbol of diplomatic victory between the US and Russia, typically its isolation from tensions on Earth. Russian cosmonauts went to orbit aboard the space shuttle, and when it stopped flying, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft became NASA’s only trip to orbit in nearly a decade. The station also requires the cooperation of the two space powers to function: The Russian segment relies on electricity generated by American solar panels, while the entire station depends on Russian equipment to control its trajectory.

But now the anti-satellite test, as well as rising tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine and other issues, are complicating the decades-old friendship between NASA and Roscosmos. As the two agencies tried to secure a pair of agreements that would sustain their relationship for years to come, they found that problems in orbit were inescapably linked to actual conflict.

Agreements have been in place for many years. One would allow Russian cosmonauts to fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to make trips to the space station, in exchange for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for American astronauts. The other will strengthen the NASA-Roscosmos space station alliance through 2030.

Both agreements require signatures from officials in the White House, whose primary concern is de-escalating the military conflict with Russia over Ukraine. They must also go through the State Department, where officials are weighing options to prevent Russia from launching anti-satellite weapons in the future. Agreements on further space cooperation are becoming entangled with reactions on these other issues.

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

Mr. Rogozin seems to concede that the future of space relations lies in the hands of the leaders of nations.

“In the sense that this program has been approved,” he said, “Roscosmos has full confidence in the Russian President and the Russian government. ”

Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s arms industry, has firsthand experience of the difficult side of US-Russian relations. The US sanctioned him personally in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. That has barred him from entering the United States and complicated his ability to meet with his American counterparts.

Bill Nelson, a former senator from Florida who served as a NASA administrator under President Biden, called the Russian rocket test “pitiful” at the time. However, he softened his tone in subsequent conversations with Rogozin, expressing concern about the new cosmic cloud but suggesting that his counterpart did not know in advance that the Russian military would conduct anti-aircraft tests. satellite.

Mr. Nelson said in an interview that he thought Mr. Rogozin “was in the middle of a rock and a difficult place, because there was only so much he could say” about the weapons test. “He has to be quite serious, which I completely understand,” added Mr. Nelson.

The day before the rocket test, a delegation of senior NASA officials, including the agency’s deputy chief executive, Bob Cabana, flew to Moscow to negotiate directly with their Russian counterparts. Through several days of meeting after the test and over dinner with Rogozin, they confirmed their desire to reach an agreement to exchange astronaut flights and expand their partnership with the space station from 2024 to 2020. 2030.

“We intend to do both. We didn’t sign any agreements, but it was a very productive discussion,” said Cabana, who was sent to Moscow to participate in the talks in part because he was known to Russian space officials. as a former NASA astronaut.

Rogozin did not tell NASA that the test was imminent. He said in a recent interview that the Ministry of Defense did not consult Roscosmos first, but stressed that the Russian military has the ability to monitor private space to determine whether a missile attack is possible. jeopardize the space station.

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

Amid growing tensions over the weapons test, Rogozin announced earlier this month that Anna Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s crew, would be the first Russian under the deal to fly in the cabin. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon next fall. In the interview, he said that under the upcoming agreement, he expected to fly “at least one integrated crew per year” from 2022 to 2024. Ms. Kikina and other Russian cosmonauts were visited locations in the US for training while negotiations continued.

In the end, however, Rogozin said Roscosmos could not agree to extend Russia’s presence on the space station unless the US lifted sanctions on two Russian companies that had been blacklisted by the US. last year because they were suspected of having military ties. The sanctions prevent Russia from building the parts needed to allow the space station to last until 2030, he said.

“There is no politics behind what I am saying,” Mr. Rogozin said. “In order to give us the technical ability to produce whatever is needed for this extension, these restrictions need to be lifted first.”

NASA’s Nelson said he’s talked to the White House about space station swap deals with the Russians and space station expansion. With anti-satellite testing and other geopolitical tensions ahead, he points out that little progress has been made in approving transactions.

“All of these things have to be identified,” he said.

The astronaut swap is also subject to review by the State Department, which is weighing options for a broader response to the Russian weapons test.

A State Department spokesman declined to discuss potential measures, saying “we do not preview our response options.” But he pointed to remarks this month from Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks: “We would like to see all countries agree to limit testing of anti-satellite weapons that generate debris.”

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the proposed plans, said that could mean calls for an international halt to testing of destructive anti-satellite weapons, possibly during the Conference. disarmament in Geneva next year, instead of inserting language related to anti-satellite weapons. into NASA’s agreements with Russia.

Rogozin said he did not think Russia would conduct another anti-satellite test.

“Will there be other similar trials? More likely no than yes,” he said.

But even as the anti-satellite weapon irritant fades, the alliance of NASA and Roscosmos has gradually narrowed again, with the relationship now centered primarily on the space station.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States viewed the space station as an important site “to reach out to Russia to build a new relationship with them after the Cold War, and to keep their aerospace industry afloat.” effective and do no evil,” said Brian Weeden, an analyst with the World Confidentiality, a think tank “for countries like Iran and North Korea.

Those conditions have changed.

NASA stopped paying $90 million for each astronaut seat on board Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon begins sending Americans into space in 2020, cutting off the Russian agency’s main source of revenue. Following a congressional order to remove the US space sector from Russia’s space industry, an American rocket company this year stopped buying Russian-made rocket engines, eliminating a source Other income. And Russia is not among the US allies working with NASA to return astronauts to the moon within the next decade. Instead, it has partnered with China on its lunar program.

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

“The ISS relationship,” Mr. Weeden said, “was born of a unique set of circumstances that I thought were over.” NASA-Russia alliance shaken by events on Planet Earth

Fry Electronics Team

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