The Space Age was born at the height of the Cold War when the United States and Soviet Union were fierce competitors trying to establish leadership over the new frontier.
But beginning with the first Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 that saw American and Russian capsules dock in Earth orbit, the two countries began to collaborate on space projects, culminating with the International Space Station, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe now threaten our space collaborations with Russia. But the two countries’ space programs are entwined in ways that won’t be easily unwound, especially with astronauts and cosmonauts going to and from low-Earth orbit.
Here’s a look at some of the programs, industries, and companies involved in U.S. and European space cooperations with Russia.
The International Space Station
The ISS was developed and sustained with input from several countries, but mostly the U.S. and Russia. Hundreds of astronauts and cosmonauts have flown to and from the football field-sized science laboratory since it was first occupied in 2000.
Despite tensions over the years such as Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and now an all-out invasion, astronauts and cosmonauts have lived somewhat insulated from politics on the ground.
The U.S. and Russian segments are technically separate and could be closed off from each other, but are still stuck in a mutually dependent relationship. The Russian segment, for example, has the ability to “boost” the ISS as its orbit slowly decays. On the U.S. side, meanwhile, systems convert critical solar power to both U.S. and Russian standards.
When President Biden announced sanctions against Russia this week – some of which would directly target it space programs – the director of the country’s space agency took to Twitter again, essentially saying that crippling Russia’s abilities to support the ISS could be dangerous for everyone.
“Perhaps President Biden is out of the loop, so explain to him that correcting the station’s orbit and corrections to avoid conjunctions with space junk ... is made possible exclusively using the engines of Russia’s Progress MS cargo ships,” Roscosmos Director Dmitry Rogozin said Thursday.
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an unguided de-orbit to impact on the territory of the U.S. or Europe?” Rogozin said.
But NASA does have one edge in that argument: Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule, the latest version of which launched to the ISS this month, does include some new ISS boost capabilities. The agency had been without that capability since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. How much of Russia’s orbit-raising capacity can be replaced by Cygnus remains to be seen.
Further, NASA’s crewed access to the ISS also won’t be cut off if Russia opts to stop selling seats on Soyuz rockets. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has already delivered four crews to the ISS and counting, and Boeing’s Starliner capsule is also spinning up operations to do the same later this year after more testing.
“Gentlemen, when you plan sanctions, be sure to check who is thinking them up and make sure they’re not suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,” Rogozin said. “As a partner, I suggest that you not behave like an irresponsible gamer and disavow the ‘Alzheimer’s Sanctions.’”
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a NASA spokesperson told FLORIDA TODAY the ISS partnerships are still intact and operations are moving ahead as planned.
“NASA continues working with Roscosmos and our other international partners in Canada, Europe, and Japan to maintain safe and continuous International Space Station operations,” NASA said.
Stationed aboard the ISS now are NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari Thomas Marshburn, and Mark Vande Hei; European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer; and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.
Russian engineers have a long, storied history of building workhorse rocket engines. So much so that two American-made rockets rely on engines purchased from the country as main sources of propulsion.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, a key vehicle in the launching of sensitive Department of Defense payloads and multibillion-dollar NASA science missions, uses Russian-made RD-180 engines. Its next flight with a weather satellite is scheduled for 4:38 p.m. EST Tuesday, March 1, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Atlas V’s use of Russian-made engines is one of the main reasons for the ongoing development of Vulcan Centaur, the rocket ULA is building to replace it. It will use Blue Origin BE-4 engines made in Huntsville, Alabama.
Northrop Grumman also launches uncrewed resupply missions to the ISS on its Cygnus capsule. But its ride to orbit, the Antares rocket that flies from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, also uses Russian engines named RD-181.
Soyuz rockets, most of which launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahstan, are the workhorses of Russian access to space. The rocket family has flown nearly 2,000 missions since its debut in the late 1960s.
But it’s not just about Russia – the reliability of the aging rocket has attracted other customers over the years like NASA, the European Space Agency, and private companies. For a nearly 10-year gap between 2011 and 2020, for example, NASA’s only way to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS came down to Soyuz.
With SpaceX’s Dragon now in operation, the U.S. has crewed access again. In the event of a Dragon suspension due to hardware issues, though, a workaround would be needed as Boeing’s Starliner capsule is still in the testing phases.
Other agencies like the ESA were targeted early Saturday when Russia announced it would withdraw space-related support from French Guiana, a territory of France just north of Brazil where Europe operates a spaceport and launches a slightly modified Soyuz rocket.
“In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou cosmodrome and withdrawing its technical personnel, including the consolidated launch crew, from French Guiana,” Rogozin said Saturday.
ESA was looking to launch the next of its Galileo navigation satellites soon, but the European Union’s commissioner for space responded quickly Saturday, saying operations would not be significantly impacted.
“I confirm that this decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services. Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk,” Thierry Breton said in a statement.
Access to space
Simply having access to space is enough to impact other operations. One errant maneuver, intentional or otherwise, could destroy entire orbits, impact spacecraft like satellites and the ISS, and threaten access to space for all countries.
The Russian military demonstrated this late last year with an anti-satellite weapon, or ASAT, test that knocked out an old satellite but pushed a massive debris field too close to the ISS for comfort. Astronauts and cosmonauts had to take shelter in capsules and prepare for an emergency evacuation as the field approached the station.
Other countries like India and China have also conducted ASAT tests, usually leading to harsh rebuke from U.S. government and military leaders.