Foust Forward | The limits of space cooperation between the U.S. and Russia


On the morning of Oct. 14, a Soyuz spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan, both the first and last of its kind. It was the first to use a new “ultra-fast” two-orbit approach to the International Space Station, allowing it to dock there just three hours after liftoff: far faster than the two-day trips once used by those spacecraft.

It was also likely the last where NASA will pay Russia for a seat on the Soyuz. In May, NASA announced it was spending a little more than $90 million to fly astronaut Kate Rubins on that Soyuz mission, giving the agency a little breathing room in the schedule of commercial crew development. Since that announcement, SpaceX successfully flew its Demo-2 commercial crew mission and its first operational mission, Crew-1, is set to launch in November. NASA, for now, has no plans to buy additional Soyuz seats.

When the United States invited newly post-Soviet Russia into what would become the ISS nearly three decades ago, it was supposed to mark a new era of cooperation between the two countries in space. The former archrivals in the Space Race of the 1950s and ’60s would now work closely together in human spaceflight, doing more together than they could separately. Visions of joint U.S.-Russian missions to the moon and Mars danced in the heads of space enthusiasts.

What emerged, though, was not cooperation so much as codependence. When NASA retired the shuttle, it was dependent on Russia for access to the station, spending billions of dollars over a decade on seats at steadily escalating prices. Russia, though, has been dependent on NASA for other aspects of ISS operations, and has struggled to make use of the station. Once Crew-1 arrives, there will be five American and Japanese astronauts on the station and just two Russian cosmonauts.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia on the ISS continues. Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, even suggested during a panel discussion at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) Oct. 12 he supported extending the ISS to 2030. But that cooperation between the two countries has not expanded much to other space projects, beyond the occasional instrument flown on a science mission.

It also seems unlikely to extend to NASA’s Artemis program. Rogozin, at the IAC session, called the lunar Gateway in particular “too U.S.-centric” and said Russia was unlikely to participate “on a large scale.” Asked at a later news conference what would have to change to make him reconsider, he called for applying “the principles of international cooperation which were used in order to fly the ISS program.”

In fact, that’s what is already being done. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted in a later interview that, unlike other aspects of the Artemis program, the Gateway is being managed by extending the intergovernmental agreement used for the ISS.

NASA, he said, sent Roscosmos a request for comments on a draft memorandum of understanding between the two agencies about Russia’s role on the Gateway. “We’re still waiting to hear back from them.”

The other ISS partners are sticking with NASA. Canada, Japan and three European nations all signed the Artemis Accords during a ceremony at the IAC a day after Rogozin’s comments. The following day, ESA talked about its moon and Mars exploration plans, emphasizing cooperation with NASA on both Artemis and returning samples from Mars.

“The partnership with NASA was a propellant for us” to win funding for ESA’s exploration program, Jan Woerner, director general of ESA, said at the IAC event. “This gives us new possibilities to go to low Earth orbit, moon and Mars, and do it together.”

Rubins may be not the last NASA astronaut to fly on a Soyuz. NASA wants to barter with Roscosmos, swapping commercial crew seats for Soyuz seats; such “mixed crews” would ensure there are always Americans and Russians on the station. Roscosmos, though, has yet to agree on such an exchange.



Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews.  His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the Oct. 19, 2020 issue.