NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said June 2 he will soon talk with the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, about the future of the ISS partnership. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says he will soon speak with his Russian counterpart in the hopes of continuing long-standing cooperation between the two countries in space even as Russia’s ties to China grow stronger.

In a discussion with reporters at NASA Headquarters after his “State of NASA” speech June 2, Nelson said he is scheduled to speak by phone with Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, on June 4, regarding Russia’s willingness to continue participating in the International Space Station program.

“What I hope is that they’re going to think long and hard before they would pull out of the cooperation that they have had with us,” he said.

Some Russian officials have suggested in recent months that Russia could pull out of the ISS program as soon as the mid-2020s in favor of a new national space station program. Rogozin, in a June 3 interview with TASS, said that Russia had done all the research it wanted in the space station’s orbit, at an inclination of 51 degrees, and argued that a new Russian station in a sun-synchronous orbit would be useful for monitoring Arctic regions.

Rogozin also said in the interview that the aging of the ISS, and growing maintenance costs, was a factor. While he did not commit to ending participation in the station as soon as 2025, he suggested the ISS would not last beyond 2030.

NASA officials have played down the prospects of Russia exiting the ISS partnership. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, noted after the State of NASA event that two Russian cosmonauts had, earlier in the day, performed a spacewalk lasting more than seven hours to prepare for the removal of the Pirs module. That will free up a port for the new, and long-delayed, Nauka module scheduled for launch July 15.

“Launching a new module and activating it is not a sign of pulling out of the relationship,” she concluded.

At the same time that Russian officials have proposed ending cooperation with NASA on the ISS, they have taken steps to form a new partnership with China on a proposed International Lunar Research Station. The two countries have invited other nations to join that project, and plan to hold side meetings with prospective partners during the Global Space Exploration (GLEX) Conference later this month in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Nelson, who said he plans to participate virtually in that conference, raised an alarm about growing cooperation between China and Russia in space exploration. “Now you’re hearing the talk, and serious talk, about Russia and China hitching up together and going to the moon. That is concerning,” he said.

Nelson did not mention specific topics for his discussion with Rogozin beyond the future of the ISS partnership. Rogozin said in the TASS interview that he expects to talk with Nelson about proposals to exchange seats between Soyuz and commercial crew vehicles, allowing NASA astronauts to ride on Soyuz spacecraft in exchange for Russian cosmonauts going on Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles.

Rogozin called Nelson an “experienced man” in the interview and said he looked forward to his one-on-one call and Nelson’s participation at GLEX. “The man says wise things,” he said of Nelson.

Speaking at a meeting of two National Academies committees May 25, Nelson offered measured praise for Rogozin, who remains sanctioned by the U.S. government for his role as deputy prime minister of Russia during its annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“He has been solid with regard to the continuation of the cooperation with us in space, and I hope that continues,” Nelson said of Rogozin. “I will certainly urge him to continue that.”

Nelson also suggested after the State of NASA event that space may come up during a summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin June 16 in Geneva. Nelson called Biden a “space fan” and noted the president’s several public appearances associated with NASA since taking office in January.

“When he talks with Vladimir Putin, I bet that will be one of the things on their agenda,” Nelson said.

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...