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White House, NASA Seek to Clarify U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation Status

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2014
Updated: 03-Apr-2014 09:55 PM

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, White House science and technology policy official Richard DalBello, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden all sought to clarify today whether or not NASA is still cooperating with Russia other than in operating the International Space Station (ISS).  At the end of the day, the best answer seems to be that it’s an evolving situation with no clear guidance other than that the ISS is not affected.

Yesterday, a memo from NASA’s Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations became public that instructs NASA personnel to suspend contacts with their Russian government counterparts except for activities related to operation of the ISS because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  The memo did not explain what stimulated the decision or offer many specifics about how it would impact NASA-Russia cooperation.   Hours later NASA issued an “official” statement that was announced via Twitter with a link to a Google+ webpage that was not helpful in explaining the situation.

The bottom line of the comments today is that the directive applies to all government agencies, not just NASA; that each agency will determine what activities are exempted or not on a case-by-case basis; and it is an evolving situation.  The unambiguous message is that operations of the ISS are not impacted.

Bolden spoke at a long-scheduled joint meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and Space Studies Board (SSB) this morning.  He opened his remarks by addressing this issue and saying there was a “firestorm in Moscow,” which he blamed on the media and politics.

He said he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Roscosmos Director Oleg Ostapenko, this morning and both agreed that the ISS should be kept out of the political realm. That ISS is not included in this directive has been made clear since the beginning.  The question concerns other NASA activities with Russia.

NASA has not provided a list of non-ISS cooperation, but, for example, NASA uses Russian wind tunnels for aeronautics experiments and a Russian instrument – the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) – is on the Mars Curiosity rover.  The memo states that NASA personnel can attend multilateral meetings involving Russians as long as they take place outside of Russia, but two major international conferences – the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) – both are scheduled to take place in Russia this year.  Whether NASA employees will be able to participate is unclear.

Bolden said this morning that his message to his employees is to keep doing whatever they are doing with Russia unless told to stop, including plans to participate in COSPAR (he did not address ICAS).

DalBello spoke to the ASEB/SSB meeting later in the day.  In response to a question, he stressed three points:  this is an evolving situation, it applies across the government, and the ISS is excluded.  He deferred to White House press spokesman Jay Carney as providing the official Administration guidance on the matter.

At his daily White House press briefing, Carney said the following, putting it in context of other U.S. actions with regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

Given Russia’s ongoing violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the U.S. government has taken a number of actions, to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis consistent with U.S. national interests.  We’ve talked about this previously and as we’ve already said we’ve suspended bilateral discussions with Russia on trade and investment, we’ve suspended other bilateral meetings on a case-by-case basis, and put on hold U.S.- Russia military-to-military engagement including exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences.  We also will not meet with sanctioned individuals.  We have informed the Russian government of those meetings that have been suspended, as you know.  In terms of specific case-by-case decisions that are made in response to this broader directive, I would have to refer you to each agency.   In the case of NASA there are some actions being taken, but obviously with the space station, in particular, that program, and engagement with Russia on that program, continues.

The directive that created this guidance to NASA and other government agencies reportedly was issued by the White House National Security Council and is classified and therefore not in the public domain.

Bolden said that relations with Roscosmos are “good” and “healthy.”  As for the Russian government reaction more broadly, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin oversees Russia’s space sector.  He is one of the Russian individuals sanctioned by the Obama Administration on March 17, 2014 because of his role in the Ukrainian situation.  An English-language Twitter account purportedly belonging to him (@drogozin) carried this rather sarcastic message:

NASA suspends cooperation with Roscosmos (Rus Fed Space Agency) apart from work on the ISS http://t.co/IJ0Td5PjEe Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA anyway)

That account had a separate tweet about U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines:

A Russian broom for an American witch. Still, our engines are better) http://t.co/Xf4gM8bR7w
Russia&US go to space together for 50th time. Tomorrow US booster vehicle Atlas 5 equipped with Russian RD-180 engine will be launched across the ocean to carry a satellite

Indeed, the United Launch Alliance sent DOD’s 19th Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) weather satellite into orbit today aboard an Atlas V, which uses the RD-180 engines.   DOD officials testified to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee this afternoon that they are conducting a 45-day study on what it would take to build a U.S. designed and produced alternative to the RD-180.  (Check back later for our summary of the hearing; meanwhile, the webcast is posted on the committee’s website.)


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