The Ukraine crisis reached into space yesterday as NASA confirmed that it is cutting ties with the Russian space program. With the exception of continued cooperation aimed at keeping the International Space Station (ISS) operating, the agency says that in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, it will no longer participate with its Russian counterparts on projects, bilateral visits or communications.
NASA has been carrying on bilateral relations with Russia since the early 1990s. In order to improve relations after the fall of communism and the collapse of the USSR, and to provide jobs for Russian rocket scientists to keep them from seeking work with unfriendly powers, Russia was invited to become a full partner in the ISS; providing not only modules, but also Soyuz and Progress space capsules to ferry crews and carry cargo to and from the station. However, geopolitics back on Earth have radically altered that relationship in a very short time,
On Wednesday morning, The Verge revealed a leaked memo that had come into its possession stating that, "Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine¹s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the US Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted."
The memo went on to say that this ban included travel by NASA personnel to Russia, visits by Russian government officials to NASA facilities, meetings, email, teleconferences, and videoconferences. The only exceptions to this ban are ISS operations and multilateral meetings outside of Russia involving other nations.
Last night, NASA released a statement confirming the contents of the memo saying that, "NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station."
The statement goes on to state that the aim of this ban signals a change in NASA policy, which will now target funding at launching manned spacecraft from US territory, and that the Obama administration is encouraging Congress to provide additional funding. This follows a NATO statement on Monday saying that the Alliance is suspending all civilian and military cooperation with Russia.
The effects of this ban will make NASA’s manned spaceflight program problematical for the next few years. After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA astronauts became completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsules for traveling to the space station, with a ticket price of US$70.6 million per seat. Even though NASA is developing the Orion deep-space vehicle and several private companies are working on manned spacecraft for shuttling to the ISS, they are still years away from going into full service.
In addition, the ban will also mean NASA and its vendors will have to rethink launch vehicles designed to use Russian components for which replacements will have to be found.