Russia–U.S. political tensions have officially reached space, the one area where the two countries have historically enjoyed a strong and productive working relationship since the end of the cold war.
In response to U.S. sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced Tuesday that his country would not allow the International Space Station (ISS) to operate beyond 2020, according to reports. Russia will also stop providing engines to power Atlas 5 rockets used to launch U.S. military satellites, Rogozin said.
The space station is the crowning achievement of Russian-U.S. cooperation in space—a football field-sized, $100-billion orbiting behemoth that America had hoped would operate until 2024. The station is a patchwork of U.S. modules attached to Russian ones, with the odd Japanese and European units added in, and it is unclear whether any country could operate the facility without the cooperation of all the partners. The U.S., Rogozin pointed out, is particularly at a disadvantage because it relies on Russian rockets to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the orbiting lab. Since the retirement of the space shuttles the U.S. currently lacks a means of transporting humans to low Earth orbit on our own.
The effect of this pronouncement on current joint space activities remains to be seen. “Part of me thinks it is posturing,” says Roger Launius, associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum. “They’re talking about beyond 2020. There’s a world of time between now and then.”
For now, NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are cooperating as usual. On Tuesday night three station crew members—one American, one Russian and one Japanese—departed the outpost on a Russian Soyuz capsule and landed in Kazakhstan. “Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “We have not received any official notification from the government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.”
It’s worth noting that the latest statements out of Russia come from a politician, rather than an official at Roscosmos. “At the political level, people are starting to huff and puff,” says space policy expert Roger Handberg of the University of Central Florida. “But at the agency level, they’re trying to keep it calm because they understand they’re tied together at this point.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has taken pains to preserve the peace, despite rising tensions. “The relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is good, it is healthy,” Bolden said in early April, according to Space News. This statement came just a day after NASA announced that it would halt all non–space station collaboration with Russia due to the political situation. Because the ISS is the primary point of connection between the two counties, the ramifications of NASA’s decision have been unclear.
Regardless of whether any orbital activities are actually altered by the diplomatic crisis, the tension could end up scaring U.S. lawmakers away from increased cooperation with Russia, or anyone else, in space. The U.S. is already working on a homegrown means of transportation to low Earth orbit, in the form of commercially built spacecraft from companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. “I think you may see more money on the commercial side to accelerate the development” of those vehicles, Handberg says.
And ultimately, the current crisis could determine the legacy of the ISS. “200 years from now historians are going to look back on this era and say the most significant thing about the space station is that it was this international consortium of nations that came together to build this thing,” Launius says. “Is this to be viewed as the beginning point of a century that follows of cooperative activities in space exploration or is it simply a wrinkle before a time of the go-it-alone philosophy with nation-states doing their own space programs?”