As Ukraine crisis deepens, U.S. and Russia maintain fragile peace in space


The U.S. and Russia are poised to step up cooperation in space, even as the two nations remain locked in the worst confrontation in more than a generation back on Earth.

A seven-person crew of four Americans, two Russians and a German from the European Space Agency are hurtling around the globe aboard the International Space Station. On the ground, two NASA astronauts are wrapping up training with Roscosmos, Russia's civilian space agency, while three Russian cosmonauts are training with NASA in Texas. And up to five NASA astronauts are scheduled to begin training in Russia next month ahead of more Russian rides to the space station.

"[T]his is the one area, despite what's going on geopolitically. Safe, secure operations and cooperation on the ISS continues," said Valda Vikmanis Keller, director of the Office of Space Affairs in the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

She and others spoke Wednesday at a forum hosted by George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.

This year will also mark other firsts in a partnership that dates back to the birth of the orbiting habitat more than 20 years ago.

Russia's only female cosmonaut is set to travel to the space station this fall aboard SpaceX's Dragon, the first commercial space capsule to ferry astronauts. Before the Dragon's first crewed mission to the space station in 2020, NASA was entirely dependent on Russia to get its astronauts to orbit for nearly a decade.

And when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return from the space station on March 30 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, he will have broken the American record for the longest direction spaceflight mission at 355 days.

"The ongoing station operations continue as normal, including flying a crew to the orbital outpost and returning them safely to Earth," Vikmanis Keller said. "Not only does this cooperation continue on the ISS, but on the ground."

The partnership is set to continue even longer now that the Biden administration has signaled it wants to extend the ISS, which was slated to be retired in 2024, until 2030.

"I don't see any direct threat to the ISS cooperation," Brian Weeden, a space researcher who is director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said in an interview. "It survived the 2008 Georgian war, it survived the original incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014."

The partnership is a vestige of the brief period in the 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the two longtime adversaries enjoyed historic levels of cooperation, including military partnerships such as peacekeeping in the Balkans.

"When the ISS was sold, a big part of it was the foreign policy element," said Weeden, citing the desire of both nations to maintain a leadership role in space and American concerns that Russian rocket makers would instead be recruited by U.S. adversaries.

The pitch to Congress was "can we use this to forge a new and different relationship and at the same time can we keep Russian scientists and engineers working on the ISS and not building bad things for bad people?" Weeden said.

That doesn't mean the relationship has been without problems.

Russia was roundly criticized last fall when debris from its anti-satellite test forced the station to change its orbit. Moscow insisted the weapons test did not endanger the station or its crew.

And in 2018, Moscow caused an uproar when it accused a NASA astronaut of trying to sabotage the station by drilling a hole it, which NASA has denied.

There are also concerns that if the current crisis worsens it could affect space cooperation in other ways.

For example, the American company that still relies on a Russian rocket engine to launch satellites and spacecraft is making preparations in case the standoff with Moscow affects its supply of spare parts and technical support.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, needs the RD-180 engine to power the first stage of its Atlas V rocket on upcoming missions for the military and NASA.

The company is “making sure right now with our team that we know exactly how to live without those in case they are not available to us,” CEO Tory Bruno said in an interview.

“We’ll be flying Atlas through 2024 [or] as long as 2025,” he added. “There’s a couple dozen left to go.”

The company still is awaiting some spare parts from the Russian manufacturers and also has a contract with the Russian manufacturer for "technical services” if there is a mishap.

“Truth in advertising, I have kind of a retainer technical services contract in place with them in the event that something odd happened during countdown that we didn't understand," Bruno said. "We would be able to call up the Russian technical people and ask them about it. I would keep that in place until they’re flown out if I was able."

He added: "I also have … a couple of spare parts they still owe me. It’s just like for insurance, in case we had something break. That would be easier if I had spares sitting in the warehouse. The spare parts run on for about a year. The technical services — the availability to ask questions — would run until they’re done flying."

So far, Bruno said the engine relationship with Russia has not been affected by the current crisis. "We've had no hints, no hiccups, it's just moving along business as usual."

European space officials are also closely watching how the Ukraine crisis might affect their partnerships with Russia.

Sylvie Espinasse, head of the European Space Agency's Washington Office, said Wednesday at the space diplomacy forum that the agency still plans to send representatives to Kazakhstan next month as part of its partnership with Roscosmos on the ExoMars program, which includes a robotic mission to Mars planned for September.

But she said ESA is closely watching the situation in Ukraine and how it might impact the space relationship.

Nicolas Maubert, the space counselor at the French Embassy, also told the GWU space forum that the French Space Agency still has its representative posted in Moscow.

"As the world follows the political activities related to Russia and Ukraine, NASA continues to safely conduct research onboard the ISS and cooperation continues with Roscosmos," Vikmanis Keller said.

Sean O'Keefe, who served as NASA administrator from 2001 to 2005, said he hopes the relationship will continue uninterrupted "because of mutual dependency for space access and a common mission."

But it could also serve a larger purpose, he said in an email. "The quest for space exploration of both countries has served as a neutral, diplomatic common ground to maintain constructive dialogue."