International Space Station and US-Russia relations

by Chris Zappone

“Moscow to Houston: You now have a problem…”

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I can’t imagine an act that would do more to reignite the space race than the possibility of Russia cutting off US access to the International Space Station. Russia has rejected a request to extend the use of the orbiting station past 2020. Obviously, Russia’s threat doesn’t happen in a void – this is a Russian response to US sanctions against its leaders over events in Ukraine.

The development brings into focus a matter that has dismayed some Americans for years – why the US has allowed its space program to be dependent on Russian launches and technology.

From Reuters:

Moscow took the action, which also included suspending the operation of GPS satellite navigation system sites on its territory from June, in response to Washington’s plans to deny export licences for hi-tech items that could help the Russian military.

“We are very concerned about continuing to develop hi-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicises everything,” deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin told a news conference.

I imagine there are going to be some sleepless nights in Houston on learning this news. And recall that many saw the 1970s US-USSR Apollo Soyez mission in the peaceful pursuit of space as the real end of the Cold War’s Space Race. Space analyst Morris Jones has some good background on how the ISS and NASA have shot up from a kind of bureaucratic backwater to an issue of “strategic prominence,” amid worsening US-Russia relations.

Reuters notes that Russia’s threat “to part ways on a project which was supposed to end the space race underlines how far relations between the former cold war rivals have deteriorated” since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

There is an irony in this.

By taking such an action on the ISS, Russia may actually spark the “Sputnik Moment” that Obama has quested after, but failed to ignite in the US, since coming to office. Obama has sought to galvanize the American people with the threat of being left behind technologically and economically, largely by China. Now, the prospect of Russia undocking from the ISS and preventing US access to the space station, could potentially shake Americans out of their naval-gazing.

The real technological challenger to the US isn’t Russia these days. It’s China. China has its own space station plans, a lunar rover and no shortage of satellites. So a robust response from the US to Russia- a bigger US space program, pursued more aggressively, spurring new types of technology – may ironically give the US more of an edge over China.