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NASA-Russia Cooperation: What You Need To Know

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2014
Updated: 11-Apr-2014 12:13 AM

Russia’s official news agency Itar-Tass reported today that Russian President Vladimir Putin will talk with the International Space Station (ISS) crew tomorrow (April 11) by videoconference.  Currently there are three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese aboard ISS.  All seems well in U.S.-Russian space cooperation.  Is it?

Space aficionados in Russia, the United States, and around the globe are preparing to commemorate the anniversary of when Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.  This year is also the 80th anniversary of Gagarin’s birth (he died in a MIG crash in1968).  As that celebration nears, space cooperation seems to be proceeding smoothly, but what happened to the news last week that NASA is suspending interactions with Russia other than for the ISS program because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Here’s what we know today.

The news that NASA was suspending interactions with Russia – except for operations of ISS – came as quite a surprise and generated a lot of media attention.  SpacePolicyOnline.com since has asked many questions of Administration officials (including NASA) and we have been asked many questions by you.   Here are the most often-asked questions and our answers.   It is an evolving situation – things could change at any time --but this is what we can say as of April 10, 2014.

Why did NASA do this?

  • NASA didn’t “do this.”  Administration officials tell us that NASA is following a classified directive from the White House National Security Council that applies to all government agencies.  The directive is not aimed at NASA specifically. NASA is part of the Executive Branch of government and must follow White House directives.

Then why is NASA the only agency in the headlines?

  • Good question.  The best answer we can discern is that NASA is a comparatively transparent agency.   NASA’s Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations sent a memo to Headquarters and field center leaders directing them to suspend interactions with Russia except for the ISS.   At least one center director passed that message along to his staff.  Someone shared it with the media.  Other agencies apparently dealt with the directive differently and/or have more control over their personnel.

Are operations of the International Space Station in jeopardy?

  • No.  ISS was exempted from the beginning.

Then why did NASA’s official statement devote most of its text to a rant against Congress for not providing sufficient funding for the commercial crew program?

  • Administrator Bolden is laser-focused on convincing Congress to fully fund NASA’s $848 million FY2015 request for commercial crew this year and uses every opportunity to highlight the issue.   Apparently he decided to use this as one of those opportunities.  It has, however, confused the situation because it makes some people think the ISS *is* affected or commercial crew would not be part of the conversation.

Why did NASA post its official statement on a Google+ page and announce it via Twitter instead of using regular news releases?

  • Good question.  We have no idea.  Definitely odd and not helpful.

What other NASA programs or activities are affected?

  • NASA has not released a list of its other programs and activities that involve Russia, but examples we’ve heard about include:
    • NASA personnel plan to participate in two major conferences that by happenstance are being held in Russia this year – the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) that brings together the world’s space scientists, and the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS), which does the same for aeronautics researchers. Although multilateral meetings in general are exempted from the new policy, meetings held inside Russia are not.
    • A Russian instrument, DAN, is on the Mars Curiosity rover.
    • NASA is building mirrors for instruments on Russia’s Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma (Spektr-RG) space telescope.
    • NASA scientists are part of a working group discussing Russia’s planned Venera-D mission to Venus. 
    • NASA uses Russian wind tunnels for aeronautics research

Are there exemptions for any of those?

  • Yes.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials say that exemptions have been made for COSPAR, Curiosity, and the Spektr-RG mirrors.    The status of ICAS, the Venera-D working group, and use of Russian wind tunnels is unknown.   

So what’s changed in NASA-Russia interactions?

  • From what we’ve been able to ascertain, not much so far.

Since so little has changed, this seems to be a tempest in a teapot.  Is it just a ruse by NASA to get Congress to fund commercial crew?

  • No.  And if anyone had that in mind as a potential benefit, it hasn’t worked out.  The House Science, Space and Technology Committee – Republicans and Democrats alike – continue to insist that funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are their priorities, not commercial crew.

Is this the first time NASA has been drawn into geopolitical disputes?

  • Absolutely not, starting with the response to Sputnik (which led to creation of NASA) and the Apollo program.  We’re sure you know that story.  Here’s a brief history of what happened in the succeeding decades:
    • U.S.-Soviet relationships improved in the early 1970s and the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was mounted to demonstrate détente between the two superpowers. A geopolitical decision.  
    • An agreement was signed in 1977 for follow-on space cooperation, but that was terminated (except for biosatellite missions) after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  A geopolitical decision.
    • Space relationships were cold during the 1980s as the Reagan Administration focused on the Strategic Defense Initiative (the “Star Wars” program) and initiating the space station program in 1984 partially because the Soviet Union had a space station and we didn’t  (by then the USSR was on its 6th space station, actually).   Yes, the space station program began in 1984, not in 1993 when Russia joined.
    • Only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 did U.S.-Russian space cooperation resume in a big way.  That was during the George H. W. Bush Administration with a 1992 announcement that a Russian would fly on the U.S. space shuttle and an American would fly on a long duration mission on Russia’s Mir space station (its 7th  space station).  It was a geopolitical response to the USSR’s collapse.
    • The Clinton Administration expanded U.S.-Russian space cooperation in 1993 for geopolitical reasons.   Yes, it was also argued that NASA’s space station effort would benefit (that’s another long story), but essentially the United States wanted Russia to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and to keep Russian scientists and engineers from going to work for countries that did not have U.S. best interests at heart.  Russia wanted to join the space station program and to be allowed to launch U.S.-built satellites on a commercial basis.  A deal was made.
    • In the late 1990s, some people argued that Russia was not abiding by the MTCR and Congress made the ISS program part of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) whose purpose was to deter Russia from providing certain assistance to Iran.  The INA prohibited the United States (government or industry) from paying Russia for anything related to the ISS program or human spaceflight in general unless the President certified that Russia was abiding by the MTCR.  Presidents have not been willing to do that, which is why NASA must get a waiver from that law (now the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act – INKSNA) to be able to pay Russia to launch non-Russian astronauts to ISS.
    • Everything has been going well between the two countries on space cooperation since then, with the value of cooperation demonstrated in particular after the U.S. space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 when Russia provided the only access to the ISS.  Similarly, Russia is the only country able to take crews to and from the ISS since the U.S. space shuttle program ended in 2011.  The two counties are co-dependent in operating the ISS.  While one should never say never, it seems very problematical for either country to operate ISS without the other.

Is Russia the only example of geopolitics mixing with the space program?

  • No.   Congress passed laws prohibiting NASA from cooperating with China because of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and other issues.

What happens next?

  • This is an evolving situation.  Stay tuned!

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