This week, the 39th expedition on the International Space Station came to an end. It was a fairly routine transfer and return. An additional crew of three astronauts, one from NASA, one from the European Space Agency, and one from Roscosmos are currently in Russia preparing to head to the ISS on May 28. But because of the political standoff between Russia and much of the West over Ukraine, the future of the ISS, which NASA calls "the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken," is in question.
In April NASA issued a statement stating that, while "suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation," the agency would keep working with Russia "to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.” But this week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s space program said that Russia was not planning on continuing to work with the United States on the ISS after 2020. The U.S. would prefer that it stay in operation until 2024.
Currently, the only way for Americans to go to the ISS is to hitch a ride on a Russian mission. In its April statement, NASA said it would continue its efforts to launch Americans from American soil by 2017. NASA hasn’t sent up astronauts directly from the U.S. since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. But, just a few weeks after NASA announced that they would suspend engagements with Russia, Rogozin tweeted:
After analysing the sanctions against our space industry I suggest the US delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline
Here's the issue: Russian-made engines power many of the military satellite launches in the United States. The United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, billions of dollars from the United States government to construct these delivery systems. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already sued the United States in April for awarding a contract estimated to be worth $70 billion to ULA without allowing for competition. Musk believes that his company can produce rockets to launch satellites and, eventually, people to space for less money than ULA, and without using Russian-made parts.
This week, Rogozin also said that Russia would stop providing the components needed to launch satellites to the United States, if they were used for military purposes.
From the Washington Post:
In a statement, ULA said it was unaware of the Russian export ban but said that, if true, “it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.”
The company said it has contingency plans, including a two-year inventory of engines, which “would enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”
If nothing else, the current political tangle must be giving Musk a little bit of "I-told-you-so" schadenfreude.