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New Obama Sanctions Seem to Skirt Space Activities, But Future is Unknowable

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2014
Updated: 17-Jul-2014 10:13 PM

It is impossible to know how the Malaysian airliner crash in Ukraine today (July 17) will affect U.S.-Russian relationships, but yesterday the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on certain Russian economic sectors because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine up to that point.  One Russian company that was sanctioned, NPO Mashinstroyennia, has a renowned history in Soviet space activities, but apparently is not involved in many space activities currently.

U.S.-Russian relationships have been on edge since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula earlier this year.  The Obama Administration has invoked a number of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.   Some NASA activities have been impacted, but the most high profile – such as the International Space Station (ISS) – were exempted.  The deteriorating relationship has focused attention on U.S. dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, for the RD-180 engines for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, and the for NK-33/AJ-26 engines for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, however.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued new sanctions.  Among the Russian entities on the list is NPO MASHINOSTROYENIA – “NPO Mash” – an important player in Soviet space activities.  Founded by Vladimir Chelomi, it developed the Almaz series of military space stations launched in the 1970s ( Salyut 2, 3 and 5 --  though Salyut 2 was a failure).  It was not able to compete effectively with its rival, Energia, in space activities, but survives because of other lines of business.

Currently its primary business is cruise missiles according to Anatoly Zak, an expert on Soviet and Russian space activities and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com.  In an email, Zak said that NPO Mash is not involved in any of the three major cooperative space activities with the United States – the RD-180 or NK-33/AJ-26 rocket engines or the ISS.

Until now it appears that all of the U.S.-imposed sanctions based on the Ukraine situation have barely impacted U.S.-Russian space relationships. Three Russians, two Americans and one German are currently aboard the ISS.

What will happen in the wake of events today – where Ukrainian and some U.S. sources assert that a Russian surface-to-air missile operated by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia’s commercial airline flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – is unknowable.

Many commentators today are theorizing that there was no intention to destroy a commercial airliner and cite two previous incidents where military errors led to the loss of innocent lives on commercial airlines.  In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines (KAL) 007, from New York to Seoul, because it said the airplane encroached on restricted airspace.   In 1988, a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed Iran Air 655, a commercial flight from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for an attacking military jet.  The death toll for KAL007 was 269; from Iran Air 655 was 290; and from today’s MH17 was 295.


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