Space Cooperation With Russia Remains on Even Keel For Now At Least

Space Cooperation With Russia Remains on Even Keel For Now At Least

Space cooperation continues to escape today’s geopolitical gravity, at least for now. U.S. officials confirm ISS operations remain safe and secure and the training of U.S. astronauts in Russia and Russian cosmonauts in the United States continues. An ESA representative says members of the ExoMars team are on track to travel to Kazakhstan next month to begin integrating the Mars-bound spacecraft onto its rocket for a September launch.

Valda Vikmanis-Keller, Director,  State Department Office of Space Affairs. Screengrab.

At a George Washington University Space Policy Institute seminar this morning, Valda Vikmanis-Keller, Director of the State Department’s Office of Space Affairs, said cooperation continues with Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos and the other ISS partners “to maintain safe and continuous operations.” As planned, three Russian cosmonauts will launch to ISS on March 18, and two Russians and one American will return on March 30.

The United States and Russia have been negotiating a crew exchange agreement where Americans will fly to ISS on Soyuz spacecraft and Russians on the U.S. commercial crew vehicles on a no-exchange-of-funds basis, unlike the past decade-and-a-half where NASA paid Russia to transport its crew members.

Vikmanis-Keller confirmed that three Russian cosmonauts are in training right now at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She also said two American astronauts are “wrapping up” their training in Russia now and “up to five NASA astronauts are scheduled for training in Russia.”

In an emailed statement to, NASA also said the ISS “team is continuing to safely conduct research operations” and three cosmonauts are training in Houston, but clarified the two NASA astronauts “completed training in Russia earlier in February prior to returning home.” NASA did not reference additional astronauts who might be scheduled to go there and deferred to the State Department for any additional information.

Space cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia has both transcended and been buffeted by terrestrial geopolitics throughout the Space Age.

The height of Cold War cooperation began in 1972 with an agreement that led to the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where three U.S. astronauts in an Apollo spacecraft docked with two Soviet cosmonauts in a Soyuz for two days of joint operations.

Follow-on plans for flights of the new U.S. space shuttle to a Soviet Salyut space station were scuttled, however, after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Tense relationships during the Reagan era brought space cooperation almost to a halt. Only comparatively low-key programs like the COSPAS-SARSAT search and rescue satellite system survived.

The level of cooperation in human spaceflight that defines the current era began in the George H.W. Bush Administration as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. Space shuttle flights to Russia’s Mir space station and long duration missions for U.S. astronauts on Mir during the 1990s took place in parallel with Russia joining the U.S.-European-Japanese-Canadian space station program during the Clinton-Gore Administration. The U.S. goal in expanding space cooperation with Russia was rooted in geopolitics. The deal required Russia to sign the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is intended to curtail ballistic missile proliferation, and to stop transferring cryogenic rocket engine technology to India.

The history of the space station construction era says a lot about the partners persevering through difficult challenges, but they were mostly about funding and timelines although geopolitics, especially Russia’s assistance to Iran, North Korea and Syria, were part of it.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an inflection point in the countries’ geopolitical relationship and has only deteriorated since. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent days is a new low point. How it will affect ISS is difficult to forecast.

Europe also has a long history of space cooperation with Russia. The marquee program today is ExoMars, a set of two spacecraft being built by Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA). The first, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, was launched in 2016. Its companion lander/rover was originally supposed to launch in 2018, but that slipped to 2020 and then 2022. ESA is providing the Rosalind Franklin rover. Russia built the landing platform and will launch the spacecraft on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome this fall.

Sylvie Espinasse, Director, ESA Washington Office. Screengrab.

The Director of ESA’s Washington office, Sylvie Espinasse, said at this morning’s seminar that plans for ExoMars 2022 are proceeding uninterrupted.

“We are closely monitoring what’s happening, but for now activities are ongoing as planned in the same way as on ISS. We are continuing to work with our Russian colleagues on our joint mission. The ExoMars campaign should start in Kazakhstan next month, with European colleagues traveling there to start integration of the spacecraft for launch in September.”

Nicholas Maubert, Counselor for Space (CNES) at the Embassy of France in Washington, said CNES’s representative in Moscow is still there and, in fact, will host a celebration of CNES’s 60th anniversary next week. France has had extensive bilateral space cooperation with the Soviet Union/Russia since the 1960s.

SPI Director Scott Pace, the moderator of today’s discussion and a former NASA official and former Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, commented that “hopefully there’ll be a NASA colleague present as well.” He also quipped that person may be the “last to go.”

It seems that all is calm in space cooperation, for the moment at least. How it will play out over time is tough to assess. History is not a useful guide. Not only have the decades seen space cooperation both wax and wane with geopolitical tides, but the situation is completely different now that partners’ contributions are so deeply intertwined. It is difficult to imagine how ISS could function without the Russian segment and Russia’s ExoMars 2022 lander would yield little science without ESA’s rover (which includes NASA components).

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