The ending of an era in international space cooperation
Three decades ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union promised to usher in a new era of cooperation between the West, particularly the United States, and Russia. With the Cold War in the rearview mirror, the combination of American resources and Russian expertise promised new opportunities in space, from the International Space Station to rockets powered by Russian engines.
It was a vision powered by idealism—former enemies working together in space— but also by pragmatism. Bringing Russia into the space station program helped secure support at a time when what was then Space Station Freedom was in danger of cancellation by Congress. And, American officials added, it was better having Russian engineers work on civil space programs than building missiles for Iran or North Korea.
But now that partnership is nearing an end in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the same reasons that brought it into being: idealism, for standing up for Ukraine after Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and pragmatism, because Russia and the West were already drifting apart in spaceflight, a decoupling that the response to this invasion will only accelerate.
Western governments and companies had plenty of time to prepare for last week’s invasion. Russia had been telegraphing its plans for months with troop movements near the Ukrainian border that included “exercises” in Belarus. Commercial satellites, providing optical and radar imagery, helped keep track of those preparations and, since last week, the movement of Russian forces into Ukraine and attacks on airbases and other facilities in the country.
Less than 24 hours before the invasion started, US and European officials reiterated their desire for continued cooperation with Russia on the ISS. “As the world follows the political activities related to Russia and Ukraine, NASA continues to safely conduct research on board the ISS, and cooperation continues with Roscosmos and our other international partners,” said Valda Vikmanis-Keller, director of the Office of Space Affairs in the State Department, during a Feb. 23 webinar by George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
“We are closely monitoring what is happening, but for now activities are ongoing as planned,” added another panelist, Sylvie Espinasse, head of the Washington office of the European Space Agency.
On Feb. 24, the US, Europe, and other nations announced sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion that included export restrictions. “It will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military,” President Joe Biden said in a speech announcing the measures. “It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
NASA, in a statement late that day, said that the sanctions excluded ISS operations. “The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation,” the agency stated. “No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”
Five days later, the NASA associate administrator who oversees ISS operations confirmed that it remained business as usual on the station. “Right now operations are nominal,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said at a press conference about the upcoming Ax-1 commercial mission to the station, which remains on schedule for a March 30 launch on a SpaceX Crew Dragon. “Obviously we’re continuing to monitor the situation.”
She reiterated that later in the call. “We are not getting any indications at a working level that our counterparts are not committed to ongoing operation of the International Space Station,” she said, referring to Russia. “We, as a team, are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago. The flight controllers are still talking together, our teams are still talking together, we’re still doing training together, we’re still working together.”
That included having Mark Vande Hei, the NASA astronaut who flew to the station nearly a year ago on a Soyuz spacecraft, return in late March on a Soyuz. She said there was no consideration of having Vande Hei return on Ax-1, which would require Axiom Space to remove one of its customers on that commercial mission to free up a seat for Vande Hei. However, she didn’t offer an update on negotiations with Russia on an agreement to swap Soyuz and commercial crew seats, something that would need to be finalized soon to enable a NASA astronaut to fly on a Soyuz mission this fall and a Russian cosmonaut on a Crew Dragon around the same time.
ISS, though, is the exception to the rule. Roscosmos announced February 26 that it was suspending cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana. The Russian personnel there would leave in the coming days.
The decision strands several European government, or “institutional,” missions for the EU and ESA, such as a pair of Galileo navigation satellites that were to launch on a Soyuz in April. “We will consequently assess for each European institutional payload under our responsibility the appropriate launch service based notably on launch systems currently in operation and the upcoming Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers,” ESA said in a statement February 28. Both Vega C and Ariane 6 are scheduled to make their first launches later this year.
ESA was also collaborating with Russia on ExoMars, a Mars lander mission scheduled for launch in September on a Proton that would deliver an ESA rover, Rosalind Franklin, to the Martian surface. As recently as February 25, ESA said that preparations for the launch would continue.
However, in its February 28 statement, ESA cast doubt on those plans. “Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely,” the agency said, with ESA director general Josef Aschbacher to prepare a “formal decision” on the future of ExoMars at an unspecified date.
That decision would, at the very least, delay ExoMars to the next Martian launch window in late 2024, by which time the Ariane 6 might be ready to launch the mission. (ExoMars missed its first launch window in mid-2020 because of technical problems and the pandemic.) However, Russia was also contributing the landing platform, called Kazachok, for the rover, and if the two agencies end collaboration on ExoMars it’s unclear what would replace it.
Northrop Grumman may also feel the effects of both sides of the war. Its Antares rocket uses RD-181 engines from Russia and a first stage built by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash.
At a February 18 press conference the day before the latest Antares launch from Virginia carrying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft, the company said it had all the components for two more Antares launches, which would take the company through early next year. “The best mitigation we can have is to be buying ahead,” said Kurt Eberly, director of space launch programs for Northrop Grumman Launch and Missile Defense Systems. “Hopefully, that will tide us over until these tensions can subside and we can be back to normal operating procedure.”
And yet, the situation is far less disruptive in space than what one might have expected, or what might have been the case just a few years ago. In 2014, when the US and Europe issued sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, threatened to cut off NASA’s access to Soyuz seats to get astronauts to the ISS as well as halt exports of the RD-180 engine used on the first stage of the Atlas 5.
Neither threat would be effective today. NASA now has Crew Dragon to get astronauts and others to the station: Lueders’s comments were at a briefing about a commercial Crew Dragon flight to the station. United Launch Alliance has confirmed it has acquired all the RD-180 engines it needs for the roughly two dozen remaining Atlas 5 missions it has on its manifest before it shifts to the Vulcan Centaur rocket whose engines are made in the USA.
Russia could cut off RD-181 engines for Antares. However, if that happens, or if Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash is no longer able to supply Antares first stages, Northrop could decide to launch Cygnus missions on other vehicles, just as it used Atlas 5 for two Cygnus missions after an Antares launch failure in 2014. By the second half of 2023, when the first post-Antares Cygnus mission would likely launch, Northrop could turn to ULA’s Vulcan or possible Blue Origin’s New Glenn or even SpaceX. Northrop has no other customers for Antares.
Russia’s decision to halt Soyuz launches from French Guiana will likely delay several European government missions. However, the long-term future of Soyuz launches from French Guiana were uncertain even before this decision. In January, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said he expected European institutional customers of Soyuz to shift to Vega C and Ariane 6. With little commercial activity for Soyuz out of French Guiana, he suggested Soyuz might not operate from there after 2023 without support from European governments.
“We need to have the guarantee of a number of payloads, and it’s not certain because Ariane 6 and Vega C should now take over what Soyuz has delivered,” he said then. “We’ve had discussions with our Russian partners to see whether there is a business case to go beyond 2023 or not.”
Russia in general has largely retreated from the commercial launch market. In the 1990s customers were eager to fly commercial GEO satellites on Proton because of its low costs and long track record, while Russia offered converted ICBMs as cheap launches for the nascent smallsat market.
Proton, though, has not done a commercial launch for a Western customer since 2019, when it launched a communications satellite for Eutelsat along with the first Northrop Grumman Mission Extension Vehicle. Proton suffered self-inflicted wounds from several failures in the first half of the 2010s that raised questions about its reliability. Changes in US government licensing in the last year also made it more difficult for companies to secure approvals to use Russian rockets.
Soyuz has managed to maintain some commercial launch business primarily through a contract to launch OneWeb’s constellation. But the remaining launches, all planned for Baikonur, are now in question, beyond the next launch that—for now— remains scheduled for March 4. Among the open questions are whether OneWeb will still have the regulatory approvals to export the Florida-built satellites to Baikonur, and how they will get there given airspace closures and concerns about the availability of the An-124 aircraft, built by Ukraine’s Antonov, for transporting them.
In civil space, there are few other areas of cooperation between Russia and the West. Roscosmos, once penciled in to participate in the Artemis program’s lunar Gateway, declined to provide an airlock module as originally proposed. Rogozin, now the head of Roscosmos, said in late 2020 that Russia wasn’t interested because it was “too US-centric.”
The lack of interactions meant there was little Russia could do to the United States in space to respond to the new sanctions. All Rogozin could say is that he considered it “inappropriate” for NASA to collaborate on Roscosmos’s Venera-D mission to Venus. However, that mission is unlikely to launch until late this decade, if at all, and NASA had no firm role in the mission. NASA also has two Venus missions of its own in development for launch later this decade.
That hasn’t stopped Rogozin’s rhetoric on Twitter. He suggested that Atlas 5 reliability was in question without access to personnel from NPO Energomash, citing specifically the next CST-100 Starliner commercial crew test flight scheduled to launch on that vehicle as soon as May. “Well, let’s pray for our American friends!” (ULA CEO Tory Bruno responded that while ULA liked to be able to consult with Energomash engineers about the RD-180 engines, “we have been flying them for years and have developed considerable experience and expertise.”)
Shortly after President Biden spoke about the sanctions, Rogozin fired off a tweetstorm in response, including suggesting that Biden had Alzheimer’s disease. “Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?” he wrote at one point in the rant, suggesting that the station would deorbit without the propulsion provided by the Russian segment. “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?”
That seems like an empty threat for now, because just as the US has reiterated its intent to cooperate on the ISS, Russia has shown no sign of halting cooperation. It added two modules to the station last year and, amid all of Rogozin’s airing of grievances, Roscosmos noted preparations continued to launch three cosmonauts to the station in mid-March.
Lueders said at the Feb. 28 press conference that it was keeping its options open, just in case. “We always look for how to get more operational flexibility,” she said. The Cygnus that arrived at the station on the latest Antares launch will, in April, test the ability to reboost the station’s orbit, something done now only by Russian Progress cargo spacecraft and thrusters on Russian modules.
“Currently, there is no plan—it would be very difficult—for us to be operating on our own. The ISS is an international partnership,” she said, “which is what makes it such an amazing program. It’s a place where we live and operate in space in a peaceful manner. That’s really a model for us to be operating in the future.”
But that ISS partnership will eventually come to an end, whether it’s 2030 as NASA currently plans or somewhat earlier. (Rogozin’s comments may help secure funding for NASA efforts to promote commercial space stations to succeed the ISS, just as his threats in 2014 helped win funding for commercial crew.) When that happens, there may no longer be any major civil space cooperation or commercial space relationships between Russia and the West. The idealism and pragmatism of 30 years ago has been unwound by the harsh realities of today.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.