Previous invasion of Ukraine had serious repercussions for the space sector

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SAN FRANCISCO – While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have important space policy ramifications for the United States, the impact is not likely to be as significant as shifts that have already occurred in the wake Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“What we’ve seen over the intervening eight years is a greater separation of Russia and the West in space,” Jeff Foust, senior SpaceNews staff writer, said Feb. 25 during a webinar from Duke University’s Space Diplomacy Lab. “Russia appears to be moving closer to China” with talks focused on an international lunar research station pegged for the 2030s and potential space station cooperation.

And while Russia continues to conduct more orbital launches than any nation besides China and the United States, it has lost its once enviable share of the commercial launch market to competition from SpaceX and others.

The United States and Russia remain partners through the International Space Station, which maintains its orbit thanks to periodic boosts from Russian vehicles and derives power from U.S. solar panels. In spite of economic sanctions being levied in response to Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine and anger expressed on Twitter by Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos director general, Russia is not likely to pull out of the ISS program.

“There is reason for [Russia] to stay and grumble and complain, but still not put all their cards in the China deck,” said W. Robert Pearson, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Duke University Diplomacy Program fellow. “There’s a standard for Russia to keep one chair at another desk and that could be the space station.”

“If Russia decided to terminate its participation in ISS in 2024, there really wouldn’t be much for its human spaceflight program to do,” Foust said.

Russia has continued to invest in ISS upgrades. Last year, Russian cosmonauts attached a new Russian module. And while Russia is developing its own space station, its launch remains years away.

If Russia were to walk away from ISS, the country’s human spaceflight program would have few options other than to “fly some Soyuz [capsules] around in orbit for a few days at a time,” Foust said. “I don’t think that’s particularly palatable to them.”

Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S. and Russian space programs were tightly coupled. In response to sanctions, Rogozin, then Russian deputy prime minister, threatened to deny NASA access to seats on the Soyuz capsule and halt export of RD-180 rocket engines.

While neither action was ultimately taken, the comments had serious repercussions for U.S. space policy.

At the time, Soyuz was NASA’s only means of transporting astronauts to ISS, while the space agency was seeking congressional funding for its campaign to encourage U.S. companies to develop vehicles to provide crew transportation.

“The threat of losing access to Soyuz seats wiped away the last of the skepticism on Capitol Hill about the Commercial Crew Program,” Foust said. After 2014, Congress gave NASA the funding the agency requested for the Commercial Crew Program, whereas in previous years Congress supplied only a fraction of the funding requested. NASA now relies on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS and expects to have a second U.S. option once Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 vehicle is ready to carry people.

Similarly, while RD-180 engine exports continued, the United States launch sector and United Launch Alliance began looking for alternative propulsion. Rogozin threatened to cut off RD-180 exports around the same time that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was suing to force the U.S. Air Force to bring competition to national security launches rather than awarding contracts directly to ULA. Congress, meanwhile, took legislative action to curtail ULA’s use of RD-180 engines for national security launches.

“That combination of the threat of losing the RD-180 and SpaceX demanding the chance for competition led to changes in the program,” Foust said.

Now, both ULA and SpaceX conduct launches for the U.S. military. ULA is preparing to launch the new Vulcan rocket with a domestically produced engine.

Atlas 5 rockets continue to rely on RD-180 engines, but ULA has all the RD-180s it needs for its remaining Atlas launches. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said Feb. 25 that ULA and propulsion partner Aerojet Rocketdyne have enough RD-180 expertise in-house to keep Atlas 5 flying without access to Energomash, the Russian company that built the engines under the RD-Amross joint venture with the former Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

“Been flying them for many years, lots of experience,” Bruno said via Twitter. “Also, I have personal experience in flying other people’s rockets without their support, which informs my confidence.”