After NASA was ordered by the U.S. government to suspend all interaction with Roscosmos except for work on the ISS, there is growing concern that the diplomatic struggle over Ukraine may damage the US-Russia space partnership.

NASA says it will continue to work with Roscosmos to maintain a safe and stable operation of the ISS. Source: NASA.

The much vaunted U.S.-Russia space partnership just became the latest casualty of the ongoing spat between Washington and Moscow over the Russian annexation of Crimea. On April 2, NASA was ordered to suspend all interaction with the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos. 

A leaked internal email from NASA’s policy office in Washington ordered all NASA personnel to suspend contact with Russian officials, with the exception of those activities necessary for the operation of the International Space Station, or ISS.

On April 3, NASA verified the order in a statement released on its Google+ page, and said that the space agencies will “continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.”

It is not clear why the agency chose to release the statement on its Google+ page, but multiple requests for comment from NASA officials were consistently referred to the post. 

However, there is reason to believe that this was a largely symbolic gesture, and that the partnership will survive the 2014 Crimea crisis.

Reaction from NASA and Roscosmos

Expedition 38 crew members pose for an in-flight crew portrait in the International Space Station on Feb. 22, 2014. Photo: NASA.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke candidly about the order at the Space Studies Board conference on April 3. He said that “the limitations on what our relationship is with Russia are at the government level and we need to remember that. And so my instructions to my team is that unless I tell you otherwise, don't stop doing anything that you're doing…”

The order, which prohibits NASA personnel from visiting Russia, emailing, meeting, or videoconferencing with Russian colleagues, bewildered Russian officials and members of the U.S. space community. 

“NASA suspended cooperation with Roscosmos except for work on ISS, but we do not have any cooperation with NASA except for ISS,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the space industry, wrote on Twitter.  

Although it is true that ISS represents the majority of U.S-Russia space efforts, there are a number of scientific projects unrelated to ISS. The order will have the greatest impact on these existing bilateral science projects that are not part of the ISS program. The seeming impracticality of the order sparked a number of important questions concerning its nature and purpose.

“Our biggest Mars rover has a Russian-built water-dowsing instrument in its derriere. Hope this stupid policy has no effect on its use,” Emily Lakdawalla, a planetary scientist with the Planetary Society, wrote on Twitter.

Although it is not yet clear just how many projects will be forced to stop their work because of the order, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told Russia Direct that, “NASA will review space contacts on a case-by-case basis, according to our national interest. We’re in the process of assessing what might possibly be affected,” and pointed out that this approach is consistent with the actions taken by the U.S. government in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. This response includes “curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis.”

“I would expect that the major impacts will be to bilateral scientific cooperation,” said Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Relations, “I don’t see how this really benefits the U.S. or punishes Russia.”

How NASA fits into the broader sanctions mix

“The NASA instructions look to be consistent with the instructions to all other government agencies,” Pace told Russia Direct.

NASA is a U.S. federal agency, and therefore has obligations to adhere with greater U.S. government policy. The order to suspend contact with Russian counterparts was not distributed to NASA alone, but all federal agencies engaged in bilateral projects with Russian government organs.

Bolden took issue with the suggestion that NASA must cede to politics as part of its obligations as a federal agency. 

“There are as many people…over in Moscow as we have here in Washington, D.C. who would like nothing better than to bring the ISS in to the discussion on what’s going on in Ukraine and it should not be. Yes, we are a federal government entity, but we’re doing different stuff, and we’re doing diplomacy on the side and that’s not our main job,” he said.

Bolden also said that Roscosmos and NASA continue to enjoy a good and healthy relationship despite the political climate between Washington and Moscow, and that he had spoken with Roscosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko, who was viewing the launch of a Soyuz rocket from the European Space Agency facility in Kourou, French Guiana. 

“Because Roscosmos is still about exploring, they are a vital partner, one of five on ISS,” Bolden said, adding that “Mr. Ostapenko right now is just as concerned as I am that the politicians…don’t take things and spin them out of control.”

Two decades of space partnership at risk

For the moment, ISS continues to survive this latest spat between Russia and the West. Because of the scale of the space station project vis-à-vis other U.S.-Russia bilateral projects, it greatly overshadows smaller projects.

Over the past 20 years, the space agencies have developed an inexorably interdependent working relationship – first through the Space Shuttle-Mir missions, and then through the ISS program. There is no way to break ties completely and maintain normal space station operations.

Significant infrastructure has been put in place to support ISS, such as the NASA facilities in Moscow Mission Control, and vice versa. Vital decisions concerning station management and maintenance are negotiated daily between space agency officials.

Furthermore, the fact is that ISS is not a bilateral project, but a multilateral project involving 15 nations. It is the largest international cooperative venture ever undertaken by nations during peacetime. In practical terms, although NASA and Roscosmos are the main partners, neither side can terminate their contact in the ISS program without damaging the 13 other nations involved.