Russia has apparently been a frustrating partner in spaceflight for at least a decade.
Two former NASA administrators, Jim Bridenstine and Charles Bolden, described having a strained relationship with the main partner of the International Space Station (ISS) during remarks broadcast live on Sunday August 28.
While current NASA officials say relations with Russia regarding the ISS continue as usual these days, many Russian space partnerships have weakened or dissolved following the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by the nation. Russia has also recently taken controversial steps on spaceflight; for example, it conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November 2021 that created a cloud of new debris that repeatedly threatened the ISS.
Bridenstine and Bolden said there were deep issues with Russia during their respective tenures as heads of NASA. They called for careful consideration of the agency’s international partnerships during the ongoing Artemis lunar exploration program.
“I’ll tell you, our nation’s policy toward Russia, when it comes to spaceflight, is schizophrenic,” Bridenstine said during Monday’s livestreamed event at Arizona State University. He led NASA between April 2018 and January 2021, after being appointed late during the Trump administration.
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Bridenstine criticized NASA for being “too dependent” on Russia during the decade it took to develop commercial crew alternatives after the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. The situation has forced NASA to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was ready to carry humans. in May 2020.
On Sunday, Bridenstine said Congress was making the same mistake when it comes to the ISS, because Russia now says it will step down after 2024 to focus on building a Russian-owned space station. He expressed concern that NASA-funded commercial stations may not be ready in time to fill the research gaps in low Earth orbit. (The agency is banking on extending the ISS partnership through 2030, starting in 2024, to allow time for these replacements to get up and running.)
“Congress, quite frankly, is responsible for any gap we have in low Earth orbit because they were negligent in replacing the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said. “We have always known that [the ISS] won’t last forever, but we haven’t done what it takes to prevent the gap from happening. Now that gap seems to be accelerating, and no one is talking about it.”
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Bolden, a former space shuttle commander who served as NASA chief from July 2009 to January 2017 during President Barack Obama’s two terms, said that, from his perspective, the Russian government was a bigger problem than the Congress.
Bolden was an administrator during a previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014, in which Russia seized territory from Crimea. After that, the United States imposed economic sanctions on politicians such as Dmitry Rogozin – Russia’s then deputy prime minister, who soon became the head of Roscosmos, the country’s federal space agency. In response, the swaggering Rogozin joked that NASA should put its astronauts on trampolines rather than using the Soyuz to get to space, which was the only possible method for American astronauts in 2014.
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“The space community in Russia is great, [but] it’s the government,” Bolden said of the tensions he witnessed while leading NASA. Bolden added, however, that he and his colleagues were focused on opening up space relations with Russia as well as with China.
There are now many restrictions on the US government’s work with China, which is cementing its status as a major space power. These restrictions have been put in place for security reasons.
Bolden said, however, that during his tenure as head of NASA, the agency was “on the path to an incredibly cordial program with China” through more discreet channels such as the International Forum for Aeronautical Research. “We helped them get [vice]-presidency of this organization, where we were working on air traffic management,” he said.
NASA is working to consolidate more international partnerships in the future, not only to distribute the costs and responsibilities of the Artemis program, but also to set standards for responsible space exploration. To date, 21 nations have signed the Artemis Accords; Russia is not one of them.
Bolden said NASA took “a big risk” by making the European Space Agency’s (ESA) service module part of the Orion spacecraft’s critical path, a key part of the Artemis infrastructure with the Space rocket. Launch System and Gateway in lunar orbit. space station.
Bridenstine countered that the ESA “has been a great partner” on the ISS – it’s the biggest partner outside of Russia and the US – and he expected the same with Artemis. Additionally, Artemis aims to return astronauts to the moon “sustainably” for long missions, he said, adding that cost-sharing is key to achieving that goal.
Panelist Scott Pace, former executive director of the US National Space Council, added that Europe was also on the critical path for NASA’s recently launched James Webb Space Telescope; Webb took off atop an Ariane 5 rocket, operated by French company Arianespace. “ESA has done a magnificent job with this,” he said.
Whether space cooperation boosts international collaboration or is just a lagging indicator of it was also a point of contention among attendees at Sunday’s event.
But the sustainability of Artemis, the space experts on the panel warned, will also depend on continued bipartisan support in Congress, which writes the checks for NASA and other government agencies.
Mike Gold, a space attorney and former NASA official who carried out the early Artemis Accords, recalled the previous two times when new NASA-led crewed lunar mission efforts fell apart after Apollo, under the two Bush administrations.
“I believe the reasons for that are largely political,” Gold said, “and that’s why it’s so amazing to see Artemis come together not as a Republican agenda, not as a Democratic agenda, but as a US program. As a global program.”