Launching via Trampoline

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The latest developments in geopolitics is putting a squeeze on space activities – and not just the international kind.

When the recent political crisis in Ukraine escalated to military measures with sanctions as backlash, the space world hummed with concern. Not since the end of the cold war have the two premier space powers acted in direct opposition. At first, it didn’t look so bad. Initially, the US just put Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on the sanctioned individuals list on March 19. While Rogozin oversees the Russian space industry, industrial concerns were not specifically targeted as much as Rogozin’s personal assets.

Then the real buzz began with an April 2 memo issued from NASA to its employees calling for a halt to all communication with Russian counterparts on anything except the International Space Station. While repeated clarifications of that memo revealed that it was more of a rhetorical flourish than a real impediment to cooperation, the move didn’t do much to allay fears that space activities were about to feel the heat.

Unfortunately, the latest developments may bring those fears to life. On April 28, sanctions were extended to prohibit exports of defense hardware and services from the US to Russia, a category which includes almost all space-related technology. The measure is leading to confusion as Space News reports, with export licenses being held up and companies not sure exactly how to proceed. Matters were made worse when a suit brought by SpaceX against the US Air Force to forestall a non-competitive sourcing arrangement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) referenced ULA’s use of Russian engines as an argument for invalidating their sale to the US Air Force.  While SpaceX’s step makes business sense, the result was an injunction against ULA purchasing RD-180 engines from Energomash because such a purchase might benefit Rogozin in violation of sanctions. ULA has a stockpile of RD-180s that can keep its Atlas 5 launchers running for a couple years, but it seems unlikely that this is the end of the story.

This past week Rogozin himself thumbed his nose at the west, all but daring the US to gets its astronauts to space without him and Russian space. Of course, the US currently has no means of transport other than Russia’s Soyuz, and won’t until its Commercial Crew Program goes active, which will not be for at least another couple years. The US cannot reach the International Space Station without Russia, but Russia cannot operate the station without the US. That is the mutual reliance that has made the ISS collaboration such a strong one. But  then it has never been tested with a crisis quite like this one.

It is not in the self-interest of either Russia or the United States to risk disruption to the International Space Station program – or of the many communication, observation, and military satellites upon which each nation relies. It remains to be seen whether self-interest will have the last word.

Gilles cartoon trampoline

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About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.