Russia’s ISS Boss Says Ukraine Crisis Slowing Moscow’s Renewal of Space Station Partnership

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UPDATED at 5:17 p.m. EDT

KOUROU, French Guiana — The head of the international space station program at the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on July 28 said the wall protecting the international space station and space exploration from the Ukrainian crisis might be starting to crack.

Speaking here before the launch of the fifth and final European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) freighter to the station — a program whose retirement in Europe is already complicating the station’s end-of-life deorbiting scenario — Alexey B. Krasnov said the Ukraine crisis is why Roscosmos has received no government approval to continue the station partnership beyond 2020.

“I am not necessarily optimistic” about whether such go-ahead approval will arrive this year, Krasnov said, adding that his agency had hoped to start this year preparing orders for components that will be needed for the orbital complex if it is to remain operational until 2024 and beyond.

NASA, as the station’s lead agency, has announced its intention to continue to operate the facility to 2024. Russia is the sole current means of sending astronauts to and from the station, and Russia’s Progress supply vehicles are the only ones now able to fuel the station.

In addition, it is with the complicated use of as many as three Progress vehicles that the station is likely to be deorbited on retirement — whether 2020, 2024 or 2028 — through a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere over the South Pacific.

Europe’s ATV, much larger than Progress, could have performed the deorbiting task more easily, but the 20-nation European Space Agency decided to retire the program in favor of a new cooperation with the United States on the future U.S. Orion crew transport vehicle.

William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said July 29 that NASA’s announcement of its intention to continue station operations to 2024 does not mean the station partners need to declare their plans anytime soon.

“We don’t need an immediate decision,” he said in a briefing here. “But we need some indication of their thinking at some point. There is no hard date in 2014. I don’t have a problem with the partners needing more time. I thought Russia might have stepped up first, it turns out that we did, and it was a strong signal.”

Gerstenmaier said the main advantage to announcing extended operations is that government and commercial users of the station have more time to prepare their experiments. For some experiment owners, he said, having a 10-year period of certainty between 2014 and 2024 is much better than being faced with uncertainty.

Gerstenmaier said that talks among the partners about future exploration scenarios is still moving forward without any impediments so far due to the Ukraine issue, and that daily station management is likewise unaffected.

Insisting that he steers clear of geopolitical debates, Gerstenmaier referenced April 2014 testimony to a U.S. Senate committee by Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group Inc. consultancy. She argued against a round of sanctions taking effect at the time.

“I support well-targeted sanctions on Russia, which will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking,” Eisenhower said. “But … rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda. During the Cold War, scientific and technical communities played a vital role in serving as a bridge between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially during times of crisis.” [Emphasis in original text.]

Krasnov said Russia’s relations with its space station partners — Europe, Japan and Canada in addition to the United States — remain solid as to the daily management of the facility and the management of traffic.

Krasnov has been at his job for many years and has seen tensions — notably in Iraq, Libya and Syria — that have dominated the headlines but had little or no effect on space station operations and on Russia’s place among a core of nations coordinating long-term space exploration strategy. “But this is different,” he said of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which shows no sign of easing.

Russia is assembling a 10-year space program roadmap from 2015 to 2025 and Roscosmos had hoped to begin planning, this year, for what would be needed to extend the international space station by at least four years, to 2024, and eventually to 2028.

Critical components that may no longer be in production in the next decade need to be ordered and stored, for example.

Krasnov spoke the day before the 28-nation European Union, acting in concert with the United States, appeared ready to apply a stricter set of sanctions against Russia as punishment for what it has done in Ukraine.

How far science and research should remain protected from the effects of international tensions, and even military activity, is a long-discussed subject.

French space minister Genevieve Fioraso, addressing a briefing here, said the international space station is the kind of research effort that should not be buffeted by even serious crises.

Even Israeli and Palestinian researchers work on common projects, which becomes helpful when tensions reduce, Fioraso said, and Russia and the space station partners should be able to continue their work together.

“There is a universal character to science,” Fioraso said. “These programs should escape the tensions we have today with Russia. Obviously there are exceptions for dual-use items, which can be handled differently. But for research and science these programs should not be affected by tensions, or even wars.”

Fioraso spoke even as European Union officials were preparing to ratchet up their sanctions against certain Russian individuals and institutions as part of increasing pressure applied by Europe, the United States and Japan to force Russia to stop its interference in eastern Ukraine.