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Russian-US space cooperation falls back to Earth

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission. (Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

When a SpaceX rocket blasted off on December 5, sending a load of cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), it was a soaring example of how private companies are helping fuel the next generation of U.S. space exploration.

Six days later, two Russian cosmonauts floated outside the ISS and, wielding a knife and pliers, sent shreds of insulation drifting into space as they dug for evidence of why a tiny hole had appeared in one of the Russian-built Soyuz modules docked at the orbiting station.

Taken together, the events exposed the growing gap in the countries’ symbiotic space partnership, in which one plays the role of the flashy, technologically advanced pioneer, and the other the stable provider of decades-old yet reliable designs and equipment.

The countries’ respective space agencies — NASA and Roskosmos — have cooperated for more than two decades now. In 2011, the two space-race foes grew closer than ever when the United States retired its Space Shuttle fleet, making Russian Soyuz rockets the only way to shuttle people and equipment to and from the ISS, and resulting in NASA paying Roskosmos some $2.5 billion for its services since. The relationship has survived despite the spiraling political tensions that have arisen between Moscow and Washington of late.

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That’s all changing.

An alarming launch mishap in October sent a Russian and American hurtling to Earth, which, along with the mysterious hole, added to the questions about the reliability of Russia’s program.

Lucrative Market

The bevy of private companies like SpaceX are gaining ground in their race to build rockets that can carry man and cargo to the ISS. And they are homing in on the lucrative global market for satellite launches — both commercial and government — threatening to undercut Russia’s market share and deprive Roskosmos of badly needed revenue.

The developments also put the United States on track to replace the Russian-built RD-180 engines it has been using to power its Atlas V launch vehicle — an uneasy reliance complicated by Washington’s efforts to sanction Russia for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The United States is officially to halt using the RD-180 in 2022 — slicing revenues for the venerable power-plant’s manufacturer, Energomash — and some U.S. rocket manufacturers may have replacement engines ready to go before then.

NASA’s contract with Roskosmos for the carrying of astronauts ends in February 2020, and SpaceX and Boeing are waiting in the wings to take over, as both U.S. companies have inked deals with NASA to carry astronauts beginning in 2019.

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Close watchers of the Russian-U.S. space relationship say it’s premature to conclude Washington and Moscow will go completely separate ways in space exploration. NASA, for example, has said it intends to continue working with Russia on the International Space Station until at least 2025. And once private rockets get the final green-light in the coming years, Russian cosmonauts will presumably be among their potential cargo.

“I don’t think anything is ending soon,” Marcia Smith, a veteran space analyst who runs the online publication SpacePolicyOnline.com told RFE/RL. “We’re going to fly our guys on their rockets, and they’re going to fly their guys on ours.”

NASA’s press office did not respond to multiple phone calls and e-mails requesting an interview with the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine. But speaking to the Russian state news agency TASS in October, Bridenstine emphasized the two countries’ continuing cooperation, and the possibility of working together on the Gateway project, which NASA describes as a “U.S.-led lunar orbital platform” and which is seen as the successor to the ISS.

The United States and Russia “have had a great relationship” working together on the ISS, he was quoted as saying.

“We have both benefited greatly from utilization of the Soyuz crew capsules, Soyuz rockets as though we want to expand on that and go to the Moon in a sustainable way. And certainly we would love to work hand in hand with Russia on the Gateway and other parts of that architecture,” TASS quoted him as saying.

Still, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed that by 2025 Washington will stop supporting the ISS altogether, and Moscow has given hints that they may be eyeing other space partners.

Second To None

Bridenstine’s statements have been parsed by Russian officials to mean that Russia’s future cooperation with the United States will be as a junior partner, something that the chief of Roskosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had previously complained about.

“I believe that Russia can’t afford itself to participate in other countries’ project on second-tier roles,” TASS quoted Rogozin as saying in September.

A sharp-tongued, and sometimes outlandish, nationalist, Rogozin himself has caused ripples in the space partnership with the United States, mocking how Washington was forced to rely on Soyuz rockets to get its astronauts to the space station.

In May, he was named chief of the Russian space agency — this despite, or because of, being put on the U.S. list of Russian individuals sanctioned for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea four years earlier.

Three months after Rogozin took the helm of Roskosmos, the mysterious hole was discovered in the Soyuz module that was docked at the station. Not long after the hole was plugged, he suggested that sabotage was to blame, possibly by the crew on the station. And when Russian media further speculated that an American astronaut might be responsible, it prompted a sharp retort from the station’s American commander.

Rogozin later said in a TV broadcast that people he knows at NASA had told him they are under pressure from what he called “rabid Russophobes.” He gave no further evidence.

The December 11 space walk by the two Russian cosmonauts, lasting more than seven hours, was aimed at pinpointing the hole, from the outside, and bringing back a panel for Russian engineers to inspect. As the end of 2018 approached, the final report was still forthcoming.

Rogozin’s comments have not fully repelled U.S. efforts at maintaining a semblance on cooperation.

In his interview with TASS, Bridenstine also revealed that the agency had secured a temporary waiver to the sanctions against Rogozin, so that he could visit the United States.

“There is a lot I would like to discuss with Rogozin,” Bridenstine was quoted as saying. “If we want to establish a strong working relationship, then we need to begin working closely with each other — which in turn will be good for both countries.”

It remained unclear if Rogozin had in fact been granted a visa, and if he might travel to the United States.

Near Miss

In October, a Soyuz rocket that blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan malfunctioned shortly after takeoff. The incident sent the NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin on an emergency trajectory back to Earth. Neither were harmed.

follow-up report blamed a manufacturing defect, with inspectors pointing blame at the assembly process at Baikonur.

The incident further shook perceptions of Russia’s space programs, and raised questions about the quality of engineering and whether a lack of adequate funding was leading to slippage in quality. Adding to the embarrassment for Russia, Bridenstine was present for the launch, and for his first meeting with Rogozin.

SpacePolicyOnline’s Smith said Russian and American officials appeared to have handled the incident in their stride, without any outward signs of discord. And in an interview shown on NASA’s TV channel, Hague, the American astronaut, praised the Russians for their training and response to the mishap.

A replacement crew successfully launched from Baikonur, aboard another Soyuz craft, on December 3.

But the future of Russia’s space program didn’t escape scrutiny.

Russia’s “reliability is being called into question, so what has to change?” Smith told RFE/RL, noting the loss of veteran agency employees to retirement, and the scarcity of new recruits.

The analyst said Russia had a way to go to restore its reputation, and “these things always seem to get back to the money.”.

In its annual report published on October 26, Roskosmos noted several successes, including the launch of 87 satellites, the near completion of the Vostochny Cosmodrome — which may eventually replace Baikonur — and progress toward building a new generation of Soyuz-5 rockets.

The agency also pointed to several challenges, including difficulties in obtaining parts and technology from foreign supplies due to Western sanctions, and the rapid growth of private competitors for commercial launches: SpaceX first and foremost.

It also cited a drop in government funding had led to a drop in production of rockets.

Russia’s reputation as a major provider of commercial satellite launches also took a hit when the country’s main security agency poured cold water on an ambitious venture to launch Internet-capable microsatellites aboard Russian rockets.

In comments before lawmakers in Russia’s lower house of parliament on December 11, Roskosmos’ deputy chief suggested that the effort to return humans to the moon, and perhaps build a permanent base there, was less of a cooperative effort than a competition between Russia, the United States, and China.

“I consider that a ‘moon race’ has begun. And now what’s happening now is simply a kind of competition between the three space powers,” Sergei Dubik was quoted by Interfax as saying.