Ripple Effects from Russian Invasion Extend to Space

Russia’s space chief lashes out as International Space Station operations continue as usual, while the European Space Agency regroups for satellite launch and Mars mission.

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The current International Space Station crew includes two cosmonauts, four U.S. astronauts, as well as a German astronaut representing the European Space Agency. [Courtesy: ESA]

NASA and the European Space Agency are getting caught up in ripple effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The head of Russia’s space agency raised eyebrows last week when he publicly speculated about what would happen if Russia stopped cooperating on the International Space Station (ISS).

In a Twitter rant posted last Thursday on the personal account of Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Rogozin inaccurately suggested Russia’s absence would result in an “uncontrolled deorbit” of the ISS. 

The high-profile Twitter tantrum started after President Biden announced U.S.-led economic sanctions against Russia as punishment for invading Ukraine. Biden said the sanctions will “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” 

In response, Rogozin tweeted a massive thread of sharp statements apparently aimed at nations involved in the sanctions, which in addition to the U.S., includes the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, and others.

“Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS? If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and a fall on the United States or Europe?” the tweet said, according to a Google translation. “The ISS doesn’t fly over Russia, so the risks are all yours.”

When NASA said sanctions that prohibit exporting technology to Russia would not include those needed for the ISS, Rogozin tweeted, “Our concerns have been heard.”

Russia’s Progress rocket and the U.S. Cygnus resupply ship are seen docked at the International Space Station. [Courtesy: NASA]

270 Miles Above Earth

The fact that sanctions against Moscow and the invasion of Ukraine have triggered controversy reaching 270 miles into space speaks volumes about the crisis and its potential to get worse.

The current ISS crew includes two cosmonauts, four U.S. astronauts, and a German astronaut representing the European Space Agency (ESA).

From time to time, the orbiting outpost relies on a docked Russian Progress spacecraft to gently push the ISS into a higher orbit. Without a periodic reboost, ISS’s orbit would slowly decay—but NASA has backup plans for these kinds of scenarios.

Nonetheless, despite Rogozin’s tweet, Russia’s Progress cargo spaceship fired its engines for eight minutes last Friday, boosting the ISS in advance of an upcoming rendezvous with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft scheduled to launch later this month.

NASA: ‘No Changes Are Planned’

When contacted by FLYING, the U.S. space agency said in a statement: “NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station. The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation. No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”

Cygnus—an ISS resupply spacecraft built by U.S. company Northrop Grumman—is capable of using its engines to reboost the space station’s orbit. The agency has a reboost planned while Cygnus is connected to the ISS.

Cooperation among U.S. and Russian members of the current ISS crew continues uninterrupted, according to NASA’s blog. They’re performing research and experimental projects, as well as preparing for a pair of upcoming spacewalks to maintain the space station.

Just last January, NASA announced it was extending the planned lifespan of the ISS through 2030. By that time NASA anticipates that a commercial space station will likely be operational.

A Russian Soyuz rocket at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana. [File Photo: ESA]

European Space Missions and Russia

Meanwhile, Russia’s cooperative space exploration projects with other nations are being somewhat disrupted in the wake of the invasion. Russia announced February 26 it was suspending a planned Soyuz rocket launch of European satellites Galileo and Copernicus in April at a spaceport in French Guiana, forcing officials to use other rockets to launch the satellites.

“This decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services,” said European commissioner for space Thierry Breton in a statement. “Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk.”

Also, a scheduled launch in conjunction with the 22-nation ESA scheduled for September from Russia’s facility in Kazakhstan to send a remote-controlled ExoMars rover to Mars is in doubt.

“The sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely,” according to an ESA statement released Monday.

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” the statement said. “We are assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programs conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos and align our decisions to the decisions of our Member States in close coordination with industrial and international partners [in particular with NASA on the International Space Station.]”

Astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton embraces cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov during 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz mission. [Courtesy: NASA]

Almost a Half-Century of Cooperation

These events are remarkable, given the largely collegial relationship in space between Moscow and NASA, which has lasted nearly half a century. The historic handshake in orbit between cosmonauts and astronauts during the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission symbolically ended the Space Race and began a new era in space cooperation that included the now-defunct Mir space station and NASA’s space shuttle program. 

That cooperative relationship survived the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union, and gave birth to the ISS. Expedition 1—consisting of U.S. astronaut William Shepard and Russian counterparts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev—took place in 2000. In 2011, when Washington ended the shuttle program, the Russians allowed astronauts to fly to the ISS aboard their Soyuz rockets—for a steep price. 

Now, thanks to the development of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 launch rocket and its Dragon 2 spacecraft, Russia’s rockets aren’t the only available ride into orbit. 

How much further the crisis will impact the space industry is unclear. What is clear is this: Russia’s longtime status as a member of the international space community could very well hang in the balance. 

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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