For decades, American and Russian space adventurers have enjoyed a form of political isolation from the turbulent relationship at play between their national governments. Despite the sanctions, allegations, name calling and rhetoric, American Astronauts and Russian Cosmonauts have worked side by side in places like the International Space Station, placing their national priorities to the side in favor of global ones.
But now, with the ISS on the fiscal chopping block in 2025 and America’s private space enterprises picking up steam, it’s beginning to look like the days of international cooperation in orbit are numbered — and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent appointment of Dmitry Rogozin as the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos seems to suggest the breakup may already be underway.
Rogozin has long had ties to Russia’s space endeavors, including the vastly mismanaged Vostochny Cosmodrome construction project in Russia’s Eastern region, but in the international sphere know his name because the career government official has made a habit of making aggressive statements pertaining to the United States and NASA in particular. He was also personally listed in the U.S. sanctions that followed Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014. He took the opportunity to jab at the United States for relying on Russian rockets to get into orbit, as the U.S. has not fielded a functional platform since the retirement of the space shuttle.
“After reviewing the sanctions against our [Russian space industry], [I] suggest [that the] United States deliver their astronauts to the ISS [International Space Station] using a trampoline,” he wrote on Twitter. That wasn’t the only time the new head of Roscosmos (who at the time was serving as the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation) set after the United States and its allies via social media.
That same year, U.S. ally Romania denied his aircraft access to their airspace while en route to Moldova.
“Upon U.S. request, Romania has closed its airspace for my plane … Next time I’ll fly on board TU-160,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to Russia’s long range supersonic nuclear capable bomber, comparable in some regards to America’s B-1b Lancer.
Then, again, in 2015 he lashed out at the United States on a Russian talk show again, saying, “I’ve always liked to joke, so what if they won’t give us visas and put us on sanctions lists… Tanks don’t need visas.”
The fact that the head of Russia’s space agency is barred from working with U.S. associated agencies and corporations could mark an end to high level cooperation between the two national space endeavors, as Americans are technically barred from working with Rogozin at all until Russia meets the requirements set forth by the U.S. government when establishing the sanctions.
“Rogozin is not only a hawk, but a loud hawk who has threatened to kick NASA astronauts off the Soyuz and that is not in the least helpful,” says Theresa Hitchens, a former UN space official and researcher at the University of Maryland. “The sanctions issue will make it impossible for senior level meetings, although that does not rule out lower level folks from working together.”
Rogozin first rose to prominence in Russia as the head of the nation’s nationalist party, with a particular emphasis places on opposing migrants flooding into Russia from a number of nations, including former Soviet states. Internally, the endeavor was often accused of racial prejudice, as ethnicity was a common facet of the rhetoric used by his party. In fact, Rogozin and his party were actually barred from taking part in the 2005 elections after their campaign was accused of inciting racial violence rather than legitimately pursuing election. From there, he went to work for Russia at NATO, where he famously hung a picture of Soviet figurehead Josef Stalin on the wall of his office within NATO’s complex.
There is, of course, always hope that the United States and Russia can continue to see above the political disputes of the world from their vantage point high above it, but then, with the ISS ticking toward the end of its operational lifespan, there may be little use for joint U.S./Russian space efforts in the near future in any regard — making the legacy of the ISS mission not only an unprecedented time in human led space science but in international cooperation.
One day soon, NASA and Roscosmos scientists, researchers and explorers serving as a global reminder that Americans and Russians could overcome politics for the sake of humanity’s greater good may be nothing more than a memory about a better time long past.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press