Nelson, Rogozin To Talk on Friday

Nelson, Rogozin To Talk on Friday

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Rogozin are scheduled to hold their first talk on June 4. The future of U.S.-Russian cooperation in the International Space Station is likely to be the main topic of conversation and Nelson expects space to be on the agenda of the Biden-Putin summit later this month as well.

Nelson presented his first “State of NASA” speech yesterday before a small, socially-distanced audience of NASA employees in the auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.  A similarly small group of reporters listened in a nearby conference room until most of the NASA audience left to allow the media to enter for a question-and-answer session with Nelson and other key agency leaders. It was the first such event at NASA HQ since the COVID-19 pandemic forced NASA into a work-from-home mode.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson with key agency leaders at State of NASA address, NASA HQ, June 2, 2021. L-R: Bob Pearce, Associate Administrator, Aeronautics; Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, Science; Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations; Bill Nelson, Administrator; Jim Reuter, Associate Administrator, Space Technology. Not shown: Bob Gibbs, Associate Administrator, Mission Support. Photo credit: M. Smith.

Nelson did not address agency re-opening plans but instead highlighted NASA’s recent achievements, announced the next two missions in the Discovery series, and introduced himself to the workforce, committing to the importance of teamwork.

“There’s no doubt that NASA is the premier space agency in the world. But NASA is only as good as its people. And we’re lucky to have the best of the best. I’m committed to leading NASA as our team … but it’s crucial that this is not a top-down agency. It’s an agency where our workforce, every single one of you, is critical to the success of our missions.”

Sworn into office one month ago, among the top issues on his plate is future cooperation with Russia as some Russian officials suggest they will end participation in the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. All are currently committed to operating the ISS through 2024. Although there is an expectation that will be pushed out to 2028 or 2030, no such extension has been negotiated yet.

Nelson reiterated yesterday that he hopes the talk of Russia leaving the partnership in 2025 is just that, talk.  He suspects that despite what politicians may say, the people working on the space program in Russia “really enjoy working” with us, want to continue, and “we certainly want them to.”

Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos earned a considerable amount of money from NASA over the past decade by selling seats on its Soyuz spacecraft to take NASA astronauts to and from ISS.  NASA could not launch anyone into orbit between 2011 when the space shuttle program was terminated and 2020 when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon became operational. Russia charged $90 million for the final seat it sold to NASA.  NASA wanted to continue the practice of launching Americans on Soyuz in return for launching Russians on the U.S. systems to ensure cross-training, but with no exchange of funds.  Roscosmos has not agreed and is currently selling the Soyuz seats to space tourists.

NASA also hoped Russia would contribute an airlock to the Gateway, a small space station it plans to put in orbit around the Moon as part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon for sustained exploration and utilization.  The other ISS partners, Europe, Canada and Japan, have all agreed to participate in the Gateway.  Russia is a hold-out so far.

Nelson said he will talk with Roscosmos Director General Rogozin tomorrow. Rogozin tweeted enthusiasm about meeting with Nelson on May 25.

Nelson said he also will participate virtually in the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) taking place in St. Petersburg, Russia from June 14-18, adding “Let’s see how the summit goes between the two presidents.”

In the middle of that week, on June 16, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Switzerland.

Biden has shown himself to be quite a NASA fan since becoming President and Nelson said it was true when he was Vice President, too. He expects Biden’s interest in space to continue.

“I’ll bet you when he talks to Vladimir Putin, that will be one of the things on their agenda.”

Geopolitical tensions notwithstanding, space is one area where Russia and the United States are still managing to get along, just as they did during the Cold War. Nelson often tells the story of the close relationships that grew from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where a U.S. Apollo docked with a Soviet Soyuz for two days of joint operations.  “In space, two enemies with guns pointing at each other on Earth can cooperate, as we have done since 1975.”

The question naturally arises that if the United States and Soviet Union could find a way to work together in space during the Cold War, why not do the same today with China.

U.S. law — the “Wolf amendment” — sharply restricts NASA’s ability to cooperate with China. Nelson has sounded warnings about China’s space plans.  Pam Melroy, whose nomination to be Nelson’s deputy is pending in the Senate, specifically endorsed the Wolf Amendment during her confirmation hearing, though she added a proviso that there are certain circumstances where it is in the U.S. national interest to talk to China.

Yesterday, Nelson pointed to space debris as one of those areas and again criticized China for the uncontrolled reentry of its Long March 5B rocket stage last month. China should have ensured there was enough fuel for a controlled reentry, he said, but at a minimum they should have been transparent.

“At least you ought to be open about it. I want to see that change in our relationship with China. There’s a lot that we can do to cooperate, we must cooperate, for example, in [collision] avoidance. We need to be able to warn each other on space debris. There’s a lot that we can do if you will be open about it, and I look forward to that.  And I hope China will respond.”

Russia and China signed an agreement in March to work together to establish an International Scientific Lunar Station and sent invitations to other countries to join them. They expect to have bilateral discussions with interested parties in conjunction with the upcoming GLEX conference and to lay out more details of what they have in mind. The March statement was rather vague.

Nelson called the China-Russia lunar plans “concerning.”

At the same time, NASA is inviting partners into the U.S.-led Artemis program. The Trump Administration set 2024 as the deadline for getting astronauts back on the lunar surface. So far the Biden Administration is sticking to that goal.

During yesterday’s briefing, Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said a review of the program and its schedule is still underway. She expects schedule updates for near-term missions in August. While insisting they are still working towards the end of November for the first launch, an uncrewed test flight called Artemis I, she acknowledged the challenges and joked that she would “love it if it was a Christmas present.”

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