After Russia refused to stand down in its invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, the United States imposed sanctions in disapproval and eliminated a great deal of collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos. The one glaring exemption was missions related to the International Space Station. While the ISS is jointly controlled by the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, astronauts depend on Soyuz rockets launched from Russia for access.
Less than a month later, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin voiced disapproval of this decision, saying they would go toe-to-toe with US threats and could potentially cut off access to the ISS. He also quipped that the US should deliver its astronauts to the ISS via trampoline. At the time of that announcement, the United States had two astronauts onboard, leaving some to speculate about their fate. Rick Mastracchio returned to Earth just yesterday, but Steven Swanson is still onboard. Gregory Wiseman is currently scheduled to launch to the ISS on May 28 for Expedition 40 and that plan does not appear to have changed.
In the latest development, Rogozin announced yesterday that Russia will no longer supply the rocket engines currently used to launch military satellites. There were threats of disabling 11 US GPS base stations. He also alluded to Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS in 2020, saying it will bar NASA’s entry to the ISS. What’s really at stake here?
Russian rocket engines are used by the United Launch Alliance for their rockets that are used to bring military and defense satellites into space. However, the ULA has stated that they already have enough engines stockpiled to perform the next two years’ worth of launches. Additionally, privately-owned SpaceX already has operational rockets that can be commissioned for use, should the need arise. All of the components for the Falcon 9 rockets are designed and manufactured in the United States. While SpaceX is currently fulfilling a contract with NASA, they are seeking to gain a contract with the Department of Defense as well.
The 11 GPS base stations that Russia is threatening to turn off are used to monitor tectonic plate activity. Without them, it will eliminate many data points necessary for understanding the motions of the plates which need to be accounted for with extreme accuracy. This would be a huge headache to the scientists who use the information to understand earthquakes and volcanos. None of them contribute America’s GPS network and it will not affect military or civilian GPS use at all; just the scientists. Rogozin stated that if the US does not allow their GLONASS base stations to be installed on US soil by the end of summer, the GPS units are getting turned off.
If Russia won’t allow American astronauts to travel to and from the ISS using their spacecraft after 2020, that’s actually not a huge problem despite the fact that NASA cancelled the shuttle program in 2011. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft could launch from the US as soon as 2017 with the capability of carrying seven astronauts as once. Orbital Sciences, another privately-owned company, is also working toward delivering humans to a low Earth orbit. However, Orbital Sciences uses a modified Russian NK-33 engine in its Antares rockets.
However, there is one aspect of Rogozin’s statement that deserves considerable pause, and that is his claim that Russia could withdraw from the ISS in 2020, when the US was hoping to utilize the ISS until 2024. The space station is divided into segments: The Russian section that is solely controlled in Moscow is used for docking when bringing crew or cargo onboard, and it is also capable of operating independently. The same cannot be said for US compartments, which is fairly problematic. While the US does have the Interim Control Module that could be used in place of the Russian module, there are some logistical concerns of launching and installing the unit. It is unknown if Russia would actually go so far to completely alienate not just Americans, but the 11 other countries governing the ISS as well.
The bottom line is that this back-and-forth disagreement over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has nothing to do with scientists, yet those are the people who will suffer the most over all of these sanctions. Since 2001, the International Space Station has been a place where over 200 people from 15 countries have come together in the pursuit of exploration and knowledge, despite any socioeconomic or political differences. Though the US will be able to overcome any roadblocks put into place by Russia, the whole situation is still fairly sad. That said, 2020 is a long way away, and a great number of things could happen before then. We can only hope that common sense will prevail so we can all return to peaceful and productive scientific collaboration.