According to a Tuesday story by AFP, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin made an implied threat against American astronauts on the International Space Station. He made the threat in response to fresh American sanctions that Rogozin suggests is directed against Russian defense and aerospace sectors. The sanctions are in response to continued Russian aggression against the Ukraine.
"If their aim is to deliver a blow to Russia's rocket-building sector, then by default, they would be exposing their astronauts on the ISS," he is quoted as saying.
A threat, even an implied one, against American astronauts on the ISS has to be taken seriously. Despite the fact that the United States started the space station and contributed most of the money and technical expertise toward its construction, the United States is totally dependent on Russia for access. That is because the space shuttle program was ended in 2011 as a cost saving measure. Commercially operated but government financed spacecraft that can take astronauts to and from the ISS will not be available before 2017.
As part of President George W. Bush’s Project Constellation, the plan had been for NASA to fly astronauts to and from the space station in the Orion space craft. That plan and much else went by the wayside when President Obama cancelled Constellation. The plan, to use commercial vehicles, has been stymied and delayed due squabbling between the administration and Congress, the latter still angered by the abrupt nature of Constellation’s ending.
Thus, for at least the next three years, Russia has the only means of accessing the ISS. Many space experts do not think Russia would actually go so far as to cut off access to the space station. This is because Russia is not likely to be able to operate the ISS without the help of NASA. Still the threat highlights the continuing peril the United States faces with having a partner in space with which it is increasingly at odds on Earth.