The Ukraine crisis could extend to outer space

Marc Sollinger Apr 3, 2014

Updated Thursday, April 3: So, as it turns out, the ongoing political tensions in Ukraine will impact things in space. According to a statement released Wednesday, NASA will suspend “the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.”

This does not however, include the operation of the International Space Station, which will continue. But travel to Russia, bilateral conferences, and email are all out the (space) window.

As noted below in the original article, NASA hopes  to have rockets launched from U.S. soil by 2017. And this could serve as a wake-up call to Congress. According to the statement, “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.”

The ongoing political tensions in Ukraine might be one of the biggest diplomatic crises on Earth, but could it affect people in space? Since the American-Russian space partnership is more entwined than ever, it’s something to consider.

Both countries depend on each other to operate in space: Russia uses America’s communication services and electrical systems, and (along with 13 other countries) the U.S. and Russia operate the International Space Station. NASA is extremely reliant on Roscosmos (the Russian space agency). The U.S. uses a Russian-built rocket, the RD-180, to put most of its national security payloads into space.

Perhaps most importantly, NASA is not capable of getting Americans off Earth without Russia’s involvement. Due to the 2010 retirement of the space shuttle, NASA has been paying Russia around $70 million per astronaut to fly Americans up to the International Space Station. It’s conceivable that Russia could simply refuse to let Americans use their Soyuz spacecraft.

According to John Logsdon, a space policy expert who is a professor emeritus at George Washington University, that scenario isn’t likely but “it’s a possibility.”

“I wouldn’t rank it as a very high possibility, but the reality is, it is in Russia’s ability to do that,” Logsdon says.

If that unlikely scenario did happen, we could, Logsdon says, have to wait two years until another American was sent into space – via NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a collaboration between NASA and several spacecraft companies. The basic idea is for NASA to facilitate the development of several spacecraft capable of transporting humans to the space station, and then choose which one it wants to use.

Right now, SpaceX is building the Dragon, Boeing is building the CST 100, and Sierra Nevada is building the Dream Chaser. The plan, as it stands now, is to have one of these spacecraft take Americans to the ISS by the end of 2017.

But this timetable could be rushed, and one of the spacecraft might be able to take off sometime in 2016. This would involve either spending more money for frequent test flights or requiring fewer tests. And fewer tests would make the entire project riskier.

Still, Roscosmos’s refusing to cooperate with NASA due to the Ukraine situation is not an expected outcome. NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs expressed that Russia and America have had a long and fruitful partnership in space and emphasized that the partnership wasn’t affected by diplomatic crises like the Georgian invasion of 2008.

“Congress even approved an extension of NASA’s exemption from the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act during that time, which was needed for everything from acquiring Soyuz seats to the purchase of hardware for some of our commercial providers,” Jacobs says.

NASA also managed to cooperate with the Russians during the height of the Cold War, which, as diplomatic crises go, was not a minor one. 

Even so, the situation in Ukraine might be the wake-up call to what the U.S. government needs, according to some.

“This dependence on another country, and particularly a former and potentially future geopolitical rival, for things of extreme strategic importance to U.S., is completely unacceptable,” says Logsdon.

Many see the situation as a consequence of the government’s slashing of the budget for space travel, which has left the U.S. in an unenviable scenario, one that advocates say only a larger budget can fix. And this might have even greater ramifications on the future of space exploration.

“Right now the big players with the money and capabilities are the U.S., Russia, and China,” says Brian Weeden, technical advisor to the Secure World Foundation. “Congress has already blocked any cooperation between the U.S. and China on space activities, and the politics behind that are unlikely to change soon. If Russia is now off the table as well, then that could be a serious blow to any major human spaceflight mission to the moon or Mars in the near future. I just don’t see how the other countries will be able to afford it without contributions from either Russia or China.”

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