U.S.-Russian-Ukrainian Space Mission Launches Successfully Despite Terrestrial Tensions

U.S.-Russian-Ukrainian Space Mission Launches Successfully Despite Terrestrial Tensions

The juxaposition between terrestrial geopolitics and space cooperation could not have been starker today with the launch of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of Antares is built largely in Ukraine and it has a Russian engine. Cygnus is built by U.S. and European companies. Like the ISS itself, this mission demonstrates that however countries are divided on Earth as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine and the U.S. and its European allies vow punishing sanctions, they are intertwined in space.

Today’s launch, NG-17, was the 17th operational ISS cargo run for Cygnus since January 2014. The spacecraft and Antares rocket have changed considerably over those years.

Launch of NG-17 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA, February 19, 2022. Screengrab

The first operational ISS cargo launch in this series, Orb-1, was for the Orbital Sciences Corporation, which won one of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts to build a cargo transportation system for ISS as a public-private partnership. That was followed by Orb-2 and Orb-3, although the latter was a failure. Orbital then merged with ATK to become Orbital ATK (OA) and flew the successful OA-4 through OA-9 missions. Orbital ATK was bought by Northrop Grumman in 2018, which has flown the NG missions ever since.

At the time the COTS program began, U.S.-Russian relationships were quite good and Orbital Sciences decided to use Russian and Ukrainian hardware for its new Antares rocket, originally called Taurus II. The first stage is designed and manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash. Originally, Antares was powered by Russian NK-33 engines from the 1960s and 1970s reburbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and relabled AJ-26. Orbital Sciences blamed the engine for the Orb-3 failure and switched to new Russian RD-181 engines, which are still used today.

The United Launch Alliance uses a different Russian engine, RD-180, for its Atlas V rocket. The geopolitical landscape between the United States and Russia began to sour after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Congress subsequently prohibited launch contracts with U.S. companies using Russian rocket engines for national security launches after 2022, but the language does not affect non-military uses like Antares/Cygnus.

Cygnus is manufactured by Northrop Grumman, which is to say it builds the service module and integrates it with the cargo module built by Italy’s Thales Alenia Space. The cargo capacity of Cygnus has been upgraded over the years and its propulsion system modified so it can be used to raise the orbit of the ISS. Since the beginning of the ISS program, only Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft and the engines on its Zvezda space station module were capable of the periodically-required reboosts to compensate for atmospheric drag. Cygnus’s reboost capability was tested on the 2018 OA-9 flight, but this is the first time it will be used operationally.

The point is that the United States, Russia and Ukraine have been and, at the moment anyway, still are working together effectively in space cooperation despite the tensions here on Earth. The ISS itself is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. Seven crew members are aboard right now — four Americans, two Russians, and a European.

The current ISS crew, Expedition 66, L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (US), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (US), Mark Vande Hei (US), Kayla Barron (US), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany). Photo credit: NASA

NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, reportedly are close to an agreement for “crew exchange” flights where Americans fly to ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Russians fly on U.S. Crew Dragon spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. The first is planned for this fall. Two Russian cosmonauts are in training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center near Houston already.

The obvious question is what happens to all that cooperation if Russia invades Ukraine as the United States and its allies expect to happen any day.

ISS cooperation continued uninterrupted during and after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and it seems the space community, at least, expects current geopolitical tensions to similarly have no effect. The Biden-Harris Administration announced just seven weeks ago that it wants to extend ISS operations from 2024 to 2030 and is negotiating with its partners, including Russia, to reach agreement.

As for Antares, Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman’s Director of Space Launch, told reporters yesterday that the company has everything it needs for all the cargo launches it currently has under contract to NASA.

“We’re obviously monitoring the situation [with Ukraine] and hopefully it can be resolved. So just, you know, the best mitigation we can have is to be buying ahead and so we have all of the hardware we need for all the missions we have on contract with NASA. So that includes NG-17, 18 and 19.  All that hardware is here at Wallops.”

NASA buys these commercial cargo services in blocks and already has contracts through 2023. Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and Sierra Space were selected for the “CRS2” second round of contracts in 2018, with NASA agreeing to buy a minimum of six from each. SpaceX just launched its 24th cargo mission to ISS in December. Sierra Space’s first launch is expected late this year. NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano said the procurement process for the next set of contracts for launches through 2026 is underway now.

Cygnus is taking 8,300 pounds of food, fuel and supplies to ISS, including fresh vegetables and ice cream, rare treats for the crew. About 2,000 of those pounds are dedicated to 40 science investigations for NASA, the ISS National Lab, and the international partners. NASA’s ISS Deputy Chief Scientist Jennifer Buckely said areas of research on ISS span human research, biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, physical science, technology development, and education.

Piers Sellers (1955-2016). Photo credit: NASA

Northrop Grumman names its Cygnus spacecraft after deceased individuals who played a pivotal role in human spaceflight. This one honors former astronaut and climatologist Piers Sellers who participated in three ISS assembly flights. He died in 2016 from pancreatic cancer.

NG-17 will arrive at the ISS early Monday morning (NASA TV coverage begins at 3:00 am ET) and remain there for about 100 days. The spacecraft is not designed to survive reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere so the crew will use it for trash disposal, an essential albeit not glamorous function. Getting rid of trash is a problem on ISS and NG-17 is actually delivering a trash deployer that will be added to the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock, which is ordinarily used for deploying cubesats.

The commercial cargo program was necessitated by President George W. Bush’s decision to terminate the space shuttle once ISS construction was complete. The original plan was for the shuttle to ferry crews and cargo to and from the ISS throughout its lifetime, so a new approach was needed. NASA chose to use a public-private partnership model where the companies retain ownership of the systems and NASA just buys services from them. The success of COTS led to the commercial crew program and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which NASA hopes will be joined by Boeing’s Starliner in the not too distant future.

But whether space cooperation remains in its seemingly-protected bubble as the Russian-Ukrainian situation plays out remains to be seen.

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