NASA-Russia alliance rocked by events on planet Earth

When the Russian military smashed an old satellite last month with an anti-satellite missile, US officials reacted angrily, warning that...


When the Russian military smashed an old satellite last month with an anti-satellite missile, US officials reacted angrily, warning that thousands of tiny pieces of new orbital debris could endanger astronauts on the International Space Station. . Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, seemed to share some of this frustration.

“No, I don’t like it,” said Rogozin, who initially played down the threat of the debris, in a recent interview. He expressed concern “that there is a lot of debris scattered in orbit”.

As the danger to space station astronauts has diminished, the diplomatic impact of Russia’s military action in orbit is significant. The November 15 weapon test sparked a rare intersection of two components of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia: on the one hand, the bravado and provocations that define their difficult military relationship; on the other hand, a long-standing friendship between NASA and the Russian space agency.

For two decades, the space station has been the symbol of the diplomatic triumph between the United States and Russia, generally safe from tensions on Earth. Russian astronauts went into orbit aboard the space shuttle, and when it stopped flying, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft became NASA’s only orbit ride for nearly a decade. The station also requires the cooperation of the two space powers to function: the Russian segment depends on electricity produced by American solar panels, while the station as a whole depends on Russian equipment to control its orbit.

But now the anti-satellite test, along with growing tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, complicate the decades-old friendship between NASA and Roscosmos. As the two agencies attempt to strike a pair of deals that would maintain their relationship for years to come, they find that business in orbit cannot avoid being tied to conflict on the ground.

The agreements have been going on for years. One would allow Russian astronauts to fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for trips to the space station, in exchange for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for American astronauts. The other would cement the NASA-Roscosmos space station alliance until 2030.

Both deals require the approval of White House officials whose primary concern is to defuse the military conflict with Russia over Ukraine. They must also pass through the US State Department, where officials are considering options to deter Russia from launching anti-satellite weapons in the future. Agreements to strengthen space cooperation are intertwined with reactions to these other issues.

“I hope this project will not be politicized,” Rogozin said of the agreements, “but you can never be sure”.

Mr Rogozin appeared to recognize that the future of the space relationship is in the hands of the leaders of the nations.

“In the sense of approving this program,” he said, “Roscosmos has full confidence in the Russian president and the Russian government.”

Mr Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister who oversaw Russia’s arms industry, has first hand experience of the jarring side of US-Russian relations. The United States personally sanctioned him in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. This prevented him from entering the United States and complicated his ability to meet his American counterparts.

Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator as NASA administrator under President Biden, at the time called the Russian missile test “pitiful.” But he softened his tone in subsequent talks with Mr Rogozin, expressing concerns about the new cloud of space debris, but assuming his counterpart did not know in advance that the Russian military would launch the anti-satellite test.

Mr Nelson said in an interview that he believes Mr Rogozin “is between a rock and a hard place because there is not much to say” about the weapon test. “He must have been quite reserved, which I fully understand,” added Nelson.

The day before the missile test, a delegation of senior NASA officials, including the agency’s associate administrator, Bob Cabana, traveled to Moscow for face-to-face negotiations with their Russian counterparts. During the days of post-test meetings and over dinner with Mr. Rogozin, they affirmed their willingness to make the deal to swap astronaut flights and expand the space station’s partnership to- beyond 2024 until 2030.

“We intend to do both. We didn’t sign any agreement, but it was a very productive discussion, ”said Cabana, who was sent to Moscow for the talks in part because he is well known to Russian space officials as a former NASA astronaut.

Mr Rogozin gave NASA no clue that the test was coming. He said in the recent interview that the Defense Ministry did not consult Roscosmos beforehand, which he attributes to the Russian military having its own spatial tracking capabilities to determine whether the missile strike would endanger the space station.

But he added, “I’m not going to tell you everything I know.”

As tensions around the weapon test loom, Mr Rogozin announced earlier this month that Anna Kikina, the only female in the Russian Astronaut Corps, would be the first Russian under the deal to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule next fall. He said in the interview that under the upcoming deal he expects to fly “at least one integrated crew per year” from 2022 to 2024. Ms Kikina and other Russian astronauts have already visited some sites in the United States to practice while negotiations continue.

Ultimately, however, Mr Rogozin said Roscosmos could not agree to an extension of Russia’s presence on the space station unless the US removes sanctions against two Russian companies added to a US blacklist. last year because of their alleged military ties. Sanctions, he says, prevent Russia from building the parts necessary to allow the space station to survive until 2030.

“There really is no politics behind what I’m saying,” Rogozin said. “In order to give us the technical capacity to produce whatever is needed for this expansion, these restrictions must first be lifted.”

NASA’s Nelson says he spoke to the White House about the astronaut seat swap agreements with the Russians and the space station expansion. With the anti-satellite test and other geopolitical tensions at the fore, he said little progress had been made in getting the deals approved.

“All of that remains to be determined,” he said.

The astronaut exchange deal is also due for review by the State Department, which is weighing options for a broader response to Russia’s weapon test.

A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss potential measures, saying “we are not planning our response options.” But he underscored the remarks of Kathleen Hicks, Assistant Secretary of Defense: “We would like all nations to agree to refrain from testing anti-satellite weapons that create debris. “

Two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss tentative plans, said it could mean calling for an international moratorium on the testing of destructive anti-satellite weapons, possibly at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. next year, rather than inserting language related to anti-satellite weapons. in NASA’s agreements with Russia.

Mr Rogozin said he did not believe Russia would conduct another anti-satellite test.

“Will there be other tests of the same kind?” More likely no than yes, ”he said.

But even as the irritant of anti-satellite weapons wears off, the alliance of NASA and Roscosmos has been gradually reduced, with the relationship now primarily focused on the space station.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the United States viewed the space station as a crucial place “to reach out to Russia to forge new relationships with them after the Cold War, and to keep their aerospace industry paid for. to do good things and not bad things. “For countries like Iran and North Korea,” said Brian Weeden, analyst at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank.

These conditions have changed.

NASA stopped paying up to $ 90 million per astronaut seat on the Russian Soyuz capsule when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon began sending Americans into space in 2020, cutting off a key source of revenue for the Russian agency. On orders from Congress to wean the US space sector from the Russian space industry, a US rocket company this year stopped purchasing Russian-made rocket engines, eliminating another source of revenue. And Russia is not among the group of American allies working with NASA to send astronauts back to the moon over the next decade. Rather, it has partnered with China on its lunar program.

While cooperation on the space station could be extended, it would likely codify the final chapter in US-Russian civil space relations, Weeden said. NASA aims to stimulate a market for privately-built orbital research outposts that would eventually replace the space station, a move that could tear one of the last ropes between the two partners.

“The relationship with the ISS,” Weeden said, “is the result of a unique set of circumstances which I believe have passed.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: NASA-Russia alliance rocked by events on planet Earth
NASA-Russia alliance rocked by events on planet Earth
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