NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have been cooperating (with other national agencies) on the International Space Station since development began in the early 1990s. . But the director of Roscosmos has said that cooperation could end abruptly due to mounting sanctions against Russia. (NASA)

The United States and Russia have cooperated extensively and well in building and operating the International Space Station since the plan was formalized in 1993.  The European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency have played major roles since the beginning, but it was first and foremost a U.S.-Russian venture.

That deep cooperation has been failing for some years but the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions may well put a final end of that.

Late last week, as Russia invaded Ukraine and Western nations responded with increasingly harsh sanctions, the director of Russia’s space agency chief sent out a harsh, sarcastic and threatening tweet about that ISS partnership.

After President Biden announced Thursday that the U.S. would sanction major Russian banks and impose export controls on Russia to curtail high-tech imports, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that the sanctions could “destroy our cooperation on the ISS.”

Not only that, he said that the current orbit and location of the ISS is under his nation’s control since Russian Progress spacecraft keep it from losing altitude.  He went on in a long tweet that threatened: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?”

“The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours.  Are you ready for them?”  Rogozin, a longtime Putin ally, has been at the helm of Roscosmos since May 2018 and was previously a deputy prime minister in charge of the Russian defense industry.

In a statement, NASA said that “The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space operation. No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in-orbit and ground-station operations.” 

There are four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts, and one European astronaut now aboard the ISS.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has warned that U.S. sanctions against the Russian space sector could have serious consequences for the International Space Station. /CFP

That the ISS could and would become a point of contention now is hardly surprising.  While birthed during a time of budding Russian-American partnership, that spirit of scientific cooperation is now long gone.

Since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, American sanctions against Russia have included advanced technology used for spacecraft.  Then on Thursday,  President Joe Biden announced new and stronger sanctions that included more, but so far unspecified, space related technology.

“We estimate that we will cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports, and it will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military,” Biden said. “It will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”

Following that announcement came the sharp-edge tweets by Rogozin, who is known for his online bluster and provocations.  In the tweet, he also appeared to suggest that Biden suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Rogozin’s comments about how Russian rockets keep the ISS aloft is at least partially true.  NASA relies on Russian propulsion from docked Progress cargo ships to help control the station’s position and orientation in space via its thrusters.  These Russian spacecraft also periodically boost the station on its orbit around Earth, and theoretically the ISS would lose altitude if the rockets stopped given those boosts.

It is also the case that without electricity generated by NASA from the American sector of the station, those unmanned Progress boosters would pretty quickly stop working as well.  The two sides have been long accustomed to filling needs that the other cannot fill.  That many-faceted cooperation is what appears to be on the block.

Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, American and Russian efforts were tightly coupled both onboard the ISS and when managing crew movements and cargo deliveries and returns.  Indeed, after the end of the NASA space shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. relied on (increasingly expensive) Soyuz capsule seats to come and go to the station since there were no other American spacecraft available.

The 2018 crew of the International Space Station: Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center), U.S. astronaut Scott Tingle (left), and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai. (Pavel Golovkin, AP)

In response to the 2014 Crimea sanctions against Russia, however, then Russian deputy prime minister Rogozin  threatened to deny NASA access to seats on the Soyuz capsule.  He also threatened to halt export of some Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines, used in the Atlas III and Atlas V  launch rockets for both civilian and military purposes.

Neither threat became a reality, but both sped the development American capabilities to replace the Russian assets.

While Elon Musk’s commercial company SpaceX began carrying cargo to the ISS in 2012, the program was small and certainly did not include carrying astronauts to the station.

But at least in part because of those 2014 events, Congress substantially increased its support of private space efforts and, in 2020, SpaceX carried its first crew to the ISS.  The Boeing Starliner also has contracts to carry crew to the station, but the program has had technical problems and a first crewed mission is scheduled for some time after 2022.

As for the RD-180 rocket engines, efforts to build American substitutes also picked up steam after 2014 and now an industry to build those rockets is almost place in the U.S.  Congress had earlier prohibited the purchase of any more of the RD-180 engines — about 120 of which were sold to the U.S. over a two decade period — by 2022.

Russian Progress spacecraft approaching the ISS. These cargo craft have been used to stabilize the station with their thrusters. (NASA)

Regarding the cargo ships used to stabilize the ISS, both SpaceX’s Dragon or Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus could potentially be used to boost the station as the Progress ships do.  There is a Cygnus at the station right now and in April  it will test out a new orbit-boosting capability for the space station.  But as of now, neither the Dragon nor the Cygnus are meant to serve as long-term solutions.

So the tensions around the original 2014 sanctions sped up the development of key American space assets.  And in his long and threatening tweet last week, Roscosmos director Rogozin implied that the Russians had also been able to develop their own versions of technology denied them after 2014 and implied the same would happen regarding any new sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

Sanctions and international tensions aside, the future of the ISS is anything but assured.

Russian officials have said their country will leave the ISS by 2025 and that they plan to build and operate their own national space station. President Biden has committed to keeping the station operating until 2030, along with the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies.

But the ISS is gradually become more of a commercial venture, and a number of private space companies have announced plans to build their own commercial low-orbit space stations in the years and decades ahead.   They would join the Chinese Tiangong space station, part of which is already in orbit with the rest due to be assembled this year.

(Reflecting the ever-political nature of the ISS venture, China has never been allowed to join the ISS partnership, though top Chinese officials said in 2007 they would like to join. ESA officials agreed, but NASA did not — concerned about the transfer of sophisticated technology to the Chinese.)

The Rosalind Franklin rover has been developed over many years as a joint European Space Agency-Roscosmos venture. It is scheduled to launch this year, but ever-growing tensions over Ukraine pose a serious threat. (ESA)

While the focus now is on the International Space Station and the American-Russian partnership that created it, the European Space Agency collaboration with Roscosmos on the ambitious ExoMars project could also be in some danger.

One part of that joint project, the Trace Gas Orbiter,  has been circling Mars since 2018 measuring the gases in the planet’s high atmosphere, while an accompanying Mars lander did not make a successful landing.  But the centerpiece of the ExoMars project is the plan to send a rover to Mars — the Rosalind Franklin — to explore for signs of life.  The rover would be delivered to the surface via a Russian lander, the Kazachok.

That long-planned mission is scheduled to launch this summer from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the former Soviet launch site.

In a statement, ESA said that it “continues to work on all of its programmes, including on ISS and ExoMars launch campaign, in order to honor commitments with Member States and partners.”  But the statement also said that “We continue to monitor the evolving situation.”

Given the fast-worsening state of relations between Russia and Western nations, can that launch — or any other joint ventures with Roscosmos — go forward?


This just in:  ESA said later in the day that it is “very unlikely” that the joint European-Russian mission to Mars will launch this year, as previously planned.