Bridenstine says relationship with Roscosmos head Rogozin is positive

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine played down any differences with his Russian counterpart as he gears up for meetings with him and other space agency leaders to discuss cooperation on NASA’s exploration plans.

In an interview during a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon here Sept. 24, Bridenstine said the limited interaction he has had to date with the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has been good as Russia investigates the cause of a hole found in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the International Space Station Aug. 30.

“At this point we’ve had one conversation on the telephone, and it was very positive,” Bridenstine said, a reference to a Sept. 12 call that NASA and Roscosmos revealed in a joint statement the following day. That call came after “rumors that were circulating in Russian media” about the cause of the Soyuz leak, he said. He didn’t elaborate on the rumors, but some of those reports had blamed American astronauts on the station for causing the hole.

That investigation, which was originally being led by RSC Energia, is now under the direction of Roscosmos. “NASA is getting a lot of that information and participating very heavily in the investigation as well,” Bridenstine said. The results of that investigation will be released to the public “as soon as we are ready.”

That investigation won’t affect plans for the next Soyuz mission, Soyuz MS-10, scheduled for launch Oct. 11. A flight readiness review for that mission has been completed, he said. “Our rocket scientists have signed off on it as being ready to go,” he said.

Bridenstine plans to attend that launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and meet with Rogozin. In his prior position as deputy prime minister, Rogozin was often critical of the U.S., even suggesting at the height of the crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that the U.S. would have to rely on trampolines to access the ISS.

Bridenstine blamed that rhetoric on Rogozin’s political background, noting that he also had such a background as a former member of the House. “He comes from the Russian Duma, and I, of course, come from the U.S. Congress,” he said. “We had a good chat about that and our common backgrounds.”

“Representing constituents in a legislative body is very different from leading a space agency,” he added. “He and I both had a conversation about that. Some of his language has historically been aggressive about the United States. Some of my language has been aggressive about activities of Russia.”

That past, though, would not affect their current relationship, Bridenstine argued. “We’ve been able to make sure that space has been set apart from all of these sometimes terrestrial challenges that we have with our international partners, especially in this case, Russia,” he said. “It’s my intent to keep that relationship strong. It’s his intent as well.”

However, Rogozin has also suggested that Russia might reconsider plans to participate in NASA’s lunar Gateway under development. Speaking Sept. 22, Rogozin said, “Russia simply cannot afford to take a back seat in foreign projects,” and hinted that Russia might instead pursue its own lunar exploration plans, according to the Tass news service. A spokesman for Roscosmos later said that Rogozin’s comments didn’t mean Russia was abandoning any cooperation on the Gateway.

Bridenstine said he was not aware of any Russian doubts about being a partner on the Gateway. “The Gateway is in its formative days right now, and certainly we want all partners,” he said, including Russia. “I have not heard anybody at this point, including Russia, indicate that they did not want to be part of our activities to get back to the surface of the moon.”

NASA’s Gateway plans are likely to be a topic of discussion next week at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Germany. Bridenstine is scheduled to attend and speak on a panel there Oct. 1 with several other space agency leaders, including Rogozin, which will be followed by a press conference.

Bridenstine said he plans to emphasize language in Space Policy Directive 1 that calls for the development of both commercial and international partners to enable a sustainable return to the moon. “What I’d like to do is head out to the IAC and share with them our vision for getting back to the surface of the moon and then, where it’s appropriate, have these partnerships develop,” he said.

Asked if NASA might announce at the IAC agreements with other space agencies regarding roles for developing the Gateway, Bridenstine said, “Maybe not with the Gateway in particular, but certainly there will be other announcements.”