COLORADO SPRINGS — Before Russia invaded Ukraine, many considered international space cooperation safely insulated from geopolitical strife.

“This has drastically changed now,” European Space Agency Director General Josef Aschbacher said April 6, pointing to the “very serious sanctions” imposed by Europe and other space powers against Russia.

During some of the darkest stretches of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Western nations continued to engage in joint research activities, including the Apollo-Soyuz crewed docking mission in 1975.

But now projects including the European-Russian ExoMars mission with its substantial sunk costs and unrealized scientific gain have been sidelined as partnerships are suspended. This makes it “very difficult to forecast the future” of collaboration with Russia, Philippe Baptiste, president of French space agency CNES, said during the 37th Space Symposium’s annual heads of agencies panel discussion here. 

The exception is the International Space Station, a 15-nation partnership with outsized roles for the United States and Russia. Panelists were keen to stress that partnerships governing its safe operation remain firmly in place.

However, fractured space relations come when more international cooperation is needed to solve pressing global-scale issues, including measures to safeguard an increasingly crowded space environment.

The panel highlighted a need for stronger international regulations to ensure space operations remain sustainable as the rapidly rising numbers of satellites being launched into Earth’s orbits increase the threat of potentially catastrophic in-space collisions.

The amount of debris in space is already growing at a faster rate than the level of plastic being dumped in the Earth’s oceans, warned Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency.

Although nations have been stepping up efforts to create mechanisms for protecting the space environment, the panel agreed far more needs to be done.

Walther Pelzer, head of German space agency DLR, said the heads of space agencies panel during the 36th Space Symposium last year had also agreed this was a pressing issue.

“Nevertheless, we made … little progress to really come up with solutions,” Pelzer said.

While it is “nice to have” a group of like-minded nations on the same page, he said ultimately “it doesn’t matter if a bunch of nations don’t care about it, because then the problem will stay.” 

Pelzer called for a combination of bilateral and multilateral agreements to help accelerate the path to a framework at the United Nation-level, which he believes is the only way to create sustainable solutions.

But this path has been shrouded in uncertainty now that space has proven to be susceptible to the same geopolitical strifes that hamper progress on Earth.

“What is the alternative to not working together?” asked Pelzer.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...