A Tuesday story in Russia Today reports that Russia is moving to retaliate against American and European sanctions over its aggression in the Ukraine by in essence ending most space cooperation with the United States. It will prohibit the use of Russian rocket engines such as the RD-180 and NK-33 to launch military satellites. It is closing down 16 GPS sites in Russian territory. Finally Russia will unilaterally end its participation in the International Space Station project in 2020.
The Obama administration would like to extend space station operations to at least 2024. According to the Financial Times Russia believes that its withdraw from the space station will make this impossible. In effect Russia will have evicted the United States from the orbiting space lab that it provided the lion’s share of money and resources to build and maintain.
Russia has been showing signs of divorcing its space program from the United States ever since the Ukraine crisis started. Recently it announced serious plans to build a lunar base starting in 2030. This is seen as a poke in the eye of the United States as well, as NASA has abandoned lunar exploration by presidential directive.
NASA’s options are fairly limited, given its meager budget. Given money it could either refurbish the ISS to accommodate a Russian withdraw. Or it could partner with a private group, such as Bigelow Aerospace, to facilitate a new, private sector run space station.
The Russian moves highlight American vulnerabilities in space, thanks largely to policies initiated by President Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Obama, Clinton first brought Russia on as a partner in the space station project. Bush ended the space shuttle program to pay for Project Constellation, opening a “space flight gap” between the last shuttle flight and the first flight of the shuttle successor that had to be filled with rides on the Russian Soyuz. Obama widened that gap by cancelling Constellation and starting to pay subsidies to build private sector operated spacecraft.
All of these policies seemed like good ideas at the time. The Clinton and Bush policy changes were made when Russia was seen as a far friendlier international partner. Obama’s change was far more controversial, but took place before the current crisis in the Ukraine laid bare Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions.