Space cooperation: A U.S. bargaining chip in the Ukraine standoff?

Russia’s space program may need NASA more than NASA needs Russia.

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Tested friendship: NASA astronaut Steve Swanson (left), Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov and cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev are preparing for a March 26 launch to the space station.

With U.S.-Russian relations hitting a new low over the crisis in Ukraine, a familiar chorus is sounding: worries that Russia might refuse to give NASA astronauts a ride to the International Space Station should tension between the countries escalate. (Until new commercial vehicles come online in 2017, the only way for Americans to reach the outpost is on the Soyuz transport ship, at the rate of $70 million per seat.)

From the day these former Cold War rivals joined forces to develop the ISS in 1993, opponents of the project have used every bump in the road to warn that reliance on Russia could stall the U.S. space program. But after nearly two decades the warnings had toned down, as international crews continued to work together onboard the ISS through many upheavals, from the war in Iraq and the Russian-Georgian conflict to the Columbia accident and retirement of the space shuttle. Recently the ISS became the longest flying manned spacecraft, outrunning even the Russian Mir space station of the 1980s and 1990s. It has become obvious that the international nature of the ISS, once cited by critics as a weakness, has turned out to be its biggest strength.

In the post-cold war era, economic ties between the U.S. and Russia are weak, and the ISS remains one of the most visible areas of cooperation between the two countries. With Russian prestige (and a considerable amount of cash) on the line, Vladimir Putin can not afford masked men at the gates to space.

This is even more true considering the looming retirement of the ISS in the 2020s. The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, already faces a decision as to where it should go after that project ends. Last year, during his visit to the site of Russia’s future far eastern launch center in Vostochny, Putin had a video chat with the ISS crew, and hinted at his desire to continue international cooperation beyond the ISS. “I hope very much that (Vostochny) would be used not only by the Russian specialists but also by our colleagues in the United States and Europe. We plan to launch (from here) manned rockets and work toward the exploration of deep space,” the Russian leader said.

Over the past few years, Roskosmos has also indicated in various statements that any ambitious human spaceflight projects beyond the ISS—to the Moon, asteroids, or Mars—should be pursued in cooperation with NASA. In fact, that’s the only way they could happen. Despite substantial increases in the Russian space budget over the past decade, it is still a shadow of its U.S. equivalent.

Like the Olympics, the Russian manned space program is a source of pride and prestige for many Russians, and for Putin personally. It is that rare arena where Russia can present itself as a world leader. But unless it’s applied to a large international venture, Russian space expertise may fade or be eclipsed by competitors. Russian work on next-generation space vehicles and heavy-lift launch vehicles are at least several years behind similar developments in the United States.

That’s why, when it comes to long-term space cooperation, Russia needs NASA more than NASA needs Russia, and the U.S. is in a strong bargaining position. To those American officials who are frantically (and so far fruitlessly) searching for leverage to get Putin to back off Ukraine—you’re welcome!

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