Since 2000, when people first moved into the International Space Station, it has mostly managed to stay out of Earth-bound politics. However, the war in Ukraine might change that.

Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev, and Denis Matveyev emerged from the Soyuz capsule in mid-March wearing yellow flight suits with blue stripes. Image Credit: nypost.com

Much Ado About Nothing

Let’s put this whole “colors of the Ukrainian flag” thing to bed right off the bat. Do you really think that cosmonauts, at the beginning of a war, would show up on international television wearing the colors of the enemy to give the middle finger to the Kremlin? No, not if they wanted to be cosmonauts very long.

A more likely reason for this, in my opinion, is that they were wearing the colors of Bauman Moscow State Technical University. A school which all three of them attended. Keen-eyed observers quickly pointed out that cosmonauts had worn yellow suits like this in the past. So it could all be a red, err…yellow herring. The real issues lie elsewhere. The Russian space agency disclaims any connection to Ukraine at all, saying they just had a lot of yellow fabric on the shelves they needed to do something with.

Rocosmos coat of arms.
Rocosmos coat of arms. Image courtesy of Telegram and snopes.com

We’re not concerned with fashion here today, however. I’ll be looking at the future of the Russian space program and what, if any, effect the war in Ukraine will have on that.

The US and (what is today) Russia have collaborated in space for decades, but this recent military action by Russia raises questions about its potential effects in space.

Space Race

The competition between opposing ideologies fueled the “space race,” which ultimately led to the US landing the first man on the moon in 1969, eight years after the Soviet Union sent the first human into space.

Before long, the competition became a collaboration, with the two superpowers working together. In 1975 the US and Soviet Union came together to work on the first international space partnership, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This was a nine-day mission that saw an American Apollo spacecraft with NASA astronauts dock with a Soviet Soyuz craft carrying cosmonauts.

The brief coming together of our two nations opened the door for much larger collaborations, specifically in regards to the International Space Station (ISS) and eventual ride-sharing of US astronauts taxiing trips to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Those trips were by no means free. The Russians keep upping and upping the price to us, and NASA eventually paid $90 million to send astronaut Kate Rubins to the ISS in 2020.

NASA’s reliance on Russian rockets ended in 2020 when SpaceX debuted its Crew Dragon Capsule, but talks are underway to allow Russians on future SpaceX flights. Whether that will actually happen or not remains to be seen.

David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told space.com:

“I think part of the intent of the ISS program was to … have a program where the U.S. and Russian space sectors were so closely tied together that it became sort of unthinkable to have conflict.”

Despite that feel-good philosophy, our two nations have seen their fair share of conflict. In 2021, the Russians conducted an unexpected anti-satellite missile test against an out-of-service satellite in orbit.  The test targeted a satellite near the ISS and created thousands of pieces of space debris. The risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the Space Station was so significant that they had to take immediate action to protect themselves in case of impact.

The War in Ukraine, Sanctions, and ISS

The ISS isn’t going to be up there forever. It is set to retire as early as 2025, although the Biden administration has committed to American participation in the program until 2030.

The ISS is divided into two sections: the Russian Orbital Segment operated by Russia and the United States Orbital Segment run by the US. American and Russian astronauts were the first to step inside the ISS in 1998.

However, Russia has threatened to leave the ISS program over the current US sanctions we have placed on them in response to their invasion of Ukraine. NASA says that we will continue to work together and cooperate for the time being. But, as with any relationship, there are two sides. It’s not all up to NASA.

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The International Space Station (ISS)
The International Space Station. Image courtesy of NASA.

As part of a White House address on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden noted, regarding the sanctions he was imposing:

“It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” 

This statement so enraged Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s Space Agency (and close ally to Russian President Putin), that he publicly posted a video in Russian where he threatened to leave American astronaut Mark Vande Hei behind in space and detach Russia’s segment of the space station altogether.

NASA Watch, a space news blog, tweeted the video below, which shows the Russian part pulling away. @Rogozin is clearly threatening the ISS program,” the outlet said.

He didn’t go through with the threat, but even suggesting something so cold-hearted qualifies to me to call it a dick move.

Mr. Burbach believes that if one side stops working with the other, the entire ISS mission will fall apart. He says because the nations are so interconnected in their work on the space station, it wouldn’t be possible for Russia to exit the partnership without the whole mission falling apart.

Death of a Rover

Russia’s invasion and subsequent war with Ukraine have space ramifications more far-reaching than just the ISS. It may mean the end, or long delay, of the European Space Agency’s (ESA), plans to launch a $1.4 billion rover mission to Mars. The plan to send a rover mission to Mars is the second part of the joint ExoMars mission between ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. It was scheduled to take off on a Russian rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, in September. Following a meeting of ESA’s member states, the organization said in late February that the economic sanctions imposed by Western nations on Russia and the broader context of the war have made a 2022 launch unlikely. The program has already been delayed three times. Each time this happens, the associated costs go up dramatically. It could spell the end of the program.

Moving Forward with China

Were you aware that Russia and China have signed a memorandum agreeing to create an international lunar research station? I only learned that today. Russia, of course, has a long history of space exploration, and China is just now starting to get in the game. With the US posing sanctions against Russia, it’s not hard to foresee China and Russia becoming fast friends.

Dmitry Rogozin (there he is again) and his Chinese counterpart Zhang Kejian of the China National Space Administration signed what they call “a bilateral memorandum of understanding of Lunar cooperation” last year.

The document describes the proposed Moonbase as a:

“Comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification.”

And the US hasn’t been invited to the party. In fact, Russia and China are two of the nations yet to sign the Artemis Accords, a NASA-driven agreement on the civil exploration of the earth’s natural satellite.

I immediately envision space mining for trillions of dollars of minerals and armed guards in space suits guarding the Sino-Russian moonbase. It all sounds like something out of a late 70s James Bond movie. But it’s not.

And they are not going to stop with the moon. China plans to send their taikonauts (that’s what they call their equivalent of our astronauts) to Mars by 2033 as the first step in establishing a permanent colony there. If things keep going the way they are, the Russians will be right there by their side, and Americans will be home watching all of this unfold just like we did with Sputnik.

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