WASHINGTON — Escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington threaten to upend the cooperative relationships, forged nearly two decades ago following the Soviet Union’s breakup, that today are integral to some of America’s most important civil and military space activities.
The situation could still defuse itself, U.S. experts said, but it nonetheless offers a cautionary tale about reliance on other countries for key strategic capabilities.
In retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed following its incursion into Ukraine, Russia announced May 13 that it would end its participation in the international space station program after 2020 and prohibit the use of Russian-built rocket engines in launches of U.S. national security satellites.
Russia also announced that it would shut down 10 GPS signal-reception stations located throughout the country for scientific applications including seismology and geodynamics. This move, which would be effective June 1, is in response to U.S. stalling on Russia’s proposal to place ground stations for its own Glonass satellite navigation system on U.S. territory, according to Russian officials, who added that it would have no impact on navigation capabilities.
The pronouncements on space station and rocket engines are far more serious, at least to the extent that Russia intends to follow through. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama this year announced its intent to extend operations of the space station, the centerpiece of the U.S. human spaceflight program, from 2020 to 2024. The Russian-built RD-180 engine, meanwhile, powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of two main satellite-launching workhorses for the U.S. military space program.
The reprisals were announced by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s space activities, is one of 11 senior Russian officials singled out by the U.S. government for sanctions.
“We’ve repeatedly warned our colleagues at the political and professional levels … that sanctions are always a boomerang,” Rogozin said, according to an English-language translation posted on the Russian government’s official website. “They always come back around and are simply inappropriate in such sensitive spheres as cooperation in space exploration, production of spacecraft engines, and navigation, not to mention manned space flights.”
In a separate announcement May 13, Russia said it plans to invest the equivalent of $52 billion into its space industry over the next six years. The money would go toward activities including infrastructure modernization, reorganizing and invigorating Russia’s space industrial base, maintaining and replenishing existing satellite constellations, and laying the foundations of the nation’s lunar and deep-space ambitions beyond 2020, according to Roscosmos.
Whether Moscow’s tough talk will translate into action is unclear, however. Experts said Russia has a lot to lose by pulling back on cooperation with the United States, in large part because these activities are an important source of hard currency for its space industrial base.
“I think there is a large degree of bluster involved, particularly with respect to the ISS,” said John Logsdon, founder and former director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here.
In an emailed response to questions, Logsdon noted that 2020 is six years away — Rogozin made clear that Russia intends to fulfill its commitments to station until then — and that the Russian government is not necessarily of one mind on the matter.
“It is one, albeit highly placed, Russian, likely upset because he is the target of U.S. sanctions,” Logsdon said. “What is more important is the messages Russia sends via confidential diplomatic channels, and at this point we do not know if they are saying the same thing privately that Rogozin is saying publicly.”
The U.S. government was careful to exempt the space station and selected other activities from the sanctions, which otherwise bar trade in U.S. military and other high-tech goods and services with the named entities.
Russia built the station’s core module, operates the facility jointly with NASA and currently provides the only means of transporting U.S. astronauts to and from the outpost.
NASA expects to restore independent U.S. access to station in 2017, but it is unclear whether the agency would — or could — continue operating station without Russian participation. Logsdon said it might be technically possible but likely would require expensive modifications to the facility.
Opinions seem to differ on whether Rogozin’s announcement might complicate U.S. efforts to persuade station’s other international partners to participate beyond 2020.
“The decision on whether or not to maintain the space station after 2020 is likely to turn on a large number of factors, of which the behavior of the Russian government is a small element,” said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs and public administration at the American University here and an expert on space policy.
But Logsdon said Rogozin’s announcement presents a problem since station’s European and Japanese partners are lukewarm at the prospect of extending their participation beyond 2020. “The whole issue of ISS extension is something that needs more top-level political attention among the U.S., Russia, and the other ISS partners,” he said.
In a prepared statement, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said space cooperation has long been a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations, even during the Cold War, and that space station operations are continuing on a normal basis. “We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point,” he said.
More worrisome, according to Logsdon, is the prospect of new Russian restrictions on the use of the RD-180. These restrictions make sense from Moscow’s strategic perspective and argue in favor of an accelerated program by the United States to develop an alternative engine, he said.
The Atlas 5 and Delta 4, both built and operated by Denver-based ULA, are used to launch the vast majority of U.S. national security payloads. The Atlas 5 also is used to launch civil space payloads, and could be used to launch astronauts to the space station starting in 2017.
Rogozin’s ban on military use of the RD-180 may have been prompted by a recent U.S. federal court order that temporarily blocked ULA from purchasing the engines out of concern that such transactions might violate the sanctions. The court order, which was lifted after just a few days, was issued in the context of a lawsuit filed by rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. that challenges U.S. Air Force plans to order 36 rocket cores from ULA on a sole-source basis.
In a statement, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said neither ULA nor the RD-180’s Russian manufacturer, NPO Energomash, is aware of any specific restrictions on the use of the engines. “However,” she said, “if recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.”
Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX is pushing hard to get into the U.S. national security launch business and has repeatedly cited ULA’s dependence on the RD-180 as a liability.
Rye expressed hope that the United States and Russia will work together to quickly resolve the matter. She also said the Air Force and ULA, which is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, have contingency plans to deal with an interruption in RD-180 deliveries.
Roger Krone, vice president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, said any restrictions on the use of the RD-180 would not affect ULA’s ability to fulfill the terms of its Air Force contract for 36 rocket cores. Between the RD-180 engines already on hand — ULA said it has a two-year supply — and the Delta 4, ULA can handle all of the missions called for under that contract, Krone told reporters here May 13.
Nonetheless, U.S. reliance on the RD-180 is increasingly being called into question by Congress, and the Pentagon is studying the feasibility of developing a U.S. alternative.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said May 14 that the committee will address the RD-180 issue during its scheduled May 21 markup of the defense authorization bill for 2015. The House version of that bill recommends that the Air Force spend $220 million next year to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180.
U.S. and Russian space activities became intertwined following the 1990-1991 breakup of the Soviet Union as part of a U.S. initiative to engage a key segment of the Russian military industrial complex that otherwise might have been inclined to sell its wares and knowhow to America’s enemies. Russia was invited to join a space station program that was struggling with delays and cost overruns, while American space companies, with encouragement from Washington, sought to take advantage of proven Russian capabilities, especially in rocket hardware.
Logsdon said that engagement policy served the United States well for more than 15 years. “But it is time to reassess the degree of dependence the United States should be willing to accept, given the resurgence of Russian nationalism,” he said.
Logsdon also said the current situation underscores the danger of reliance on other countries for key capabilities, especially given the often-stated U.S. desire to remain the world leader in space. “We have been trying for too long to have a leadership program on the cheap,” he said.
SpaceNews staff writers Mike Gruss and Dan Leone contributed to this report from Washington, and correspondent Matthew Bodner contributed from Moscow.