NASA Administrator Charles Bolden defended his agency's 2017 budget request before the House Science space subcommittee March 17. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As he prepares to leave office, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the agency’s relationship with its Russian counterpart remains strong despite continued, broader geopolitical tensions.

Speaking at a press conference in Russia Nov. 19 after the successful docking of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new crew members for the International Space Station, Bolden and Igor Komarov, head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said they had discussed continued cooperation, including crew exchanges once NASA starts flying commercial crew vehicles designed to end its reliance on Soyuz vehicles for access to the station.

“We should each have a crew member on whatever vehicle is flying. The details for that still remain to be worked out,” Bolden said about continuing to fly NASA astronauts on Soyuz vehicles as Russian cosmonauts fly on commercial crew vehicles. “I do not expect that you’ll find an all-American vehicle or an all-Russian vehicle ever again.”

“I believe that it is very important for all participations of the program to have alternative transportation means to the station,” Komarov said, speaking through an interpreter. That meant, he said, flying Russian cosmonauts on U.S. commercial vehicles, with some NASA astronauts continuing to fly on Soyuz vehicles.

While NASA has been developing commercial crew vehicles for several years to end reliance on the Russian Soyuz for access to the station, NASA officials had previously discussed the possibility that astronauts would continue to use Soyuz while Russian cosmonauts flew on commercial vehicles. How those exchanges would take place, and whether any exchange of funds would be required, is not clear.

Bolden, in an interview after the press conference broadcast on NASA TV, said that the space station program has demonstrated the ability of the United States and Russia, along with other international partners, to cooperate on a complex project. “We on the International Space Station are a model for the rest of the world to follow,” he said.

That has continued despite, he acknowledged, problems on Earth. “The political and diplomatic changes and trauma that goes on down here on Earth, I think we can survive that,” he said. “As we have demonstrated, looking at incursions by one of our partners into other countries, that has not deterred or slowed work we have done on the International Space Station.”

While not explicitly stating it, Bolden was referring to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine triggered in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Although sanctions limited other space-related cooperation between the United States and Russia, operations of the International Space Station remained normal.

Bolden is nearing the end of his tenure as NASA administrator, and is expected to step down by the end of the Obama administration in January. In his NASA TV interview, he made clear he believed he was leaving on a high note. “The state of NASA today is strong,” he said. “It’s stronger than it’s ever been, I believe.”

At the press conference, which also features representatives of the European Space Agency and the French space agency CNES, Komarov mentioned an ongoing legal dispute involving former shareholders of the Russian oil company Yukos that have blocked payments to Russia from Arianespace and Eutelsat. In October, Roscosmos warned the French government it would go to court in six months if it did not receive about 300 million euros ($330 million) in blocked payments from Arianespace.

Komarov, at the press conference, called the legal dispute a “misunderstanding” but suggested Russia might stop working with Arianespace on supplying Soyuz launch vehicles should the dispute not be resolved soon.

“Our French counterparts are interested in continuing launches from Kourou, and money to organize these launches did not reach the Russian enterprises due to this Yukos case,” he said. “If this is not solved, possibly we won’t receive payment for providing our services to Arianespace, and the French counterparts understand that we cannot do charity work.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...