Rogozin Again Calls for Lifting Sanctions to Preserve ISS Partnership

Rogozin Again Calls for Lifting Sanctions to Preserve ISS Partnership

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space program, issued yet another series of tweets complaining that sanctions imposed by the United States and others could lead to Russia’s withdrawal from the International Space Station. Some media outlets are misconstruing his remarks as posing an immediate threat to the program, but he said only that he would soon make recommendations to his government on the timing of when Russia might end its participation. Meanwhile, NASA officials insist all the ISS partners, including Russia, are making progress on extending the ISS to 2030.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. All of the partners imposed sanctions against Russia and/or Russian individuals after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. They are in addition to sanctions stemming from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Dmitry Rogozin, Director General, Roscosmos, from his Twitter feed. He changed his profile picture from one where he was dressed in civilian clothes to this uniform after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Currently Director General of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos, in 2014 Rogozin was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for the defense and aerospace sectors. He was personally sanctioned by the United States and European countries at that time in addition to some companies associated with Russia’s space program.

He has complained about those sanctions all along. Since Russia invaded Ukraine and even more sanctions were imposed, he has been on a relentless Twitter tirade that includes threats to pull out of the ISS partnership and let the 420 Metric Ton earth-orbiting facility make an uncontrolled reentry.

The ISS’s orbit must be reboosted periodically to compensate for atmospheric drag. The propulsion systems to accomplish that are on Russia’s Service Module, Zvezda, and Russian Progress cargo ships that come and go. Without them, the space station would drop from orbit and debris could fall anywhere on Earth between 51.6°North and 51.6° South latitude.

Rogozin set March 31 as a deadline for when he would take unspecified actions if the sanctions weren’t lifted. That date slipped to April 2 and yesterday he did indeed issue more tweets, but the only action was asserting that he would soon make recommendations to his government about the future of the ISS.

“I believe that the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions. Specific proposals of Roscosmos on the timing of the completion of cooperation within the framework of the ISS with the space agencies of the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan will be reported to the leadership of our country in the near future.” [per Google Translate.] — Dmitry Rogozin

He also tweeted the letters he received back from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency in response to his demand that they do something about the sanctions, angrily complaining they were unresponsive.

None of those agencies has authority over what their governments do regarding sanctions. They are responsible for civil space programs and intent on keeping the ISS partnership together despite the geopolitical situation on Earth.

Russia was brought into the existing U.S.-European-Japanese-Canadian space station partnership after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As NASA officials repeatedly explain, the facility was designed with co-dependencies. For example, the U.S. side relies on Russia for propulsion not only to maintain altitude, but to avoid debris. The Russian side relies on NASA’s massive solar arrays for electrical power.

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk.  Illustration credit: NASA

It would be extremely difficult to operate ISS without Russia, but not impossible according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. He told Mark Strassman of CBS News that NASA has contingency plans and would find a way to manage if necessary, but he doesn’t expect it to come to that.

Nelson is a strong advocate of space cooperation with Russia. He often refers to the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where three Americans docked with two Soviets in Earth orbit for two days during the Cold War, as exemplifying how space cooperation can bring rival countries together.

NASA is maintaining a calm demeanor despite Rogozin’s intemperate outbursts, insisting that nothing has changed at the working level.

Indeed, a normal crew rotation just took place. Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov, arrived on ISS on March 19 aboard Soyuz MS-21 to relieve Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Four days ago, Vande Hei and his two Russian colleagues landed in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as Russians and Americans have been doing since the first ISS crew in 2000.

NASA is about to do a crew rotation of its own, launching Crew-4’s three NASA astronauts and one from ESA to replace their Crew-3 counterparts. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, commander of Crew-4, said at a pre-launch press conference on Thursday that they are looking forward to working with “our colleagues, our friends” from Russia with whom they’ve trained.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is a member of Crew-4. She will replace ESA’s Matthias Maurer who is now onboard. ESA built the European Robotic Arm that is part of Russia’s Nauka science module that docked to the ISS last summer and she and a Russian cosmonaut have been scheduled to do a spacewalk together to activate it.

Russia’s Multi-purpose Laboratory Module (MLM) Nauka docked to the ISS. Photo credit: ESA’s Thomas Pesquet via  NASA

During the Crew-4 press conference she indicated those plans are tentative, however. Indeed, one of the actions Rogozin could have taken would be to cancel that spacewalk or her participation in it. He is particularly upset with ESA’s decision, based on direction from its member countries, to cancel the ExoMars mission.

He also could have suspended efforts to reach a crew exchange agreement with NASA. For several years, NASA has been trying to get Rogozin to agree that NASA astronauts continue to launch on Soyuz spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts launching on U.S. spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.The goal is to ensure that at least one American and one Russian are on the ISS at any given time to operate their own systems. That has been the case since the beginning. Russia was paid for Soyuz flights for many of those years, but that ended with Vande Hei’s mission.

The agreement has not been signed yet, however, which is why Soyuz MS-21 had an all-Russian crew. The two sides were close before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina was expected to be assigned to September’s Crew-5 mission and NASA’s Frank Rubio to Soyuz MS-22.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said on Thursday that the agreement is in the hands of the Russian government and NASA is waiting to learn if those crew assignments will go forward.

What actions Rogozin ultimately might recommend to his government is difficult to guess, but the ISS is the centerpiece of Russia’s modest civil space program.

NASA certainly is working on the assumption that Russia not only will stay in the program, but agree to extend operations to 2030. Officially all the partners are committed only through 2024, but extending it through 2030 has been discussed for years. On December 31, President Biden formally announced that the U.S. wants to keep it until then and would negotiate with the other partners to that end.

Lueders said on Thursday all the partners, including Russia, are doing that.

“All of our international partners, including Roscosmos, are making progress on moving towards station extension through 2030. But we all have to go through this process. … There’s a careful budget process and a final government approval process that all of us have to go through to get to these next steps. But we all understand the importance of this continued partnership, even in really, really, really tough times.” — Kathy Lueders

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