In reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, NASA announced Wednesday it is severing all ties with Russia except for joint work at the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 250 miles above Earth. Only a week ago, the space agency claimed the conflict on the ground wouldn’t affect the countries’ space programs.
The new rule bars NASA employees from traveling to Russia or hosting its research visitors. Even email communication and teleconferences with Russian counterparts are off-limits, according to a memo sent to workers by Michael O’Brien, associate administrator for International and Interagency Relations.
Activities related to the space station, including Americans’ hitching rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz rockets, remain unaffected. NASA and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, “continue to work together to maintain a safe and continuous operation,” a NASA statement said late Wednesday. The ban applies only to direct communication, not meetings attended by Russia and other countries.
As recently last week NASA said relations with Roscosmos were normal. “We do not expect the current Russia-Ukraine situation to have an impact on our longstanding civil space cooperation with Russia, which goes back decades,” an earlier agency statement said.
This week’s policy shift came as Congress and NATO agreed to punish Russia for absorbing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Congress sent President Barack Obama a bill to provide loan guarantees to Ukraine totaling $1 billion and authorized additional sanctions against Russia. The foreign ministers of NATO nations also ordered an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia. And a UN measure denounced the referendum in Crimea that made the Black Sea peninsula a part of the Russian Federation.
A group of U.S. senators has also called for the cancelation of the United States’ long-term $1-billion contract with Russia for Mi-17 transport helicopters destined for Afghanistan. In a letter to Obama, the senators wrote, “Rosoboronexport is an arm of the Russian government and a powerful instrument of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy, and it handles more than 80 percent of Russia’s weapons exports.”
Sanctions also include the Commerce Department’s ban on new export deals to Russia, including those by U.S. firms that ship petrochemical products or anything with a possible military application.
NASA’s new directive comes only a week after the successful docking of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft delivering two Russians and American Steve Swanson to the ISS.
The U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe jointly administer the ISS laboratory. American astronauts train in Russia before flying to the space outpost, and the new rule is not expected to affect that aspect of the program. Budget cuts have forced NASA to rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the space station, but the agency is investing in private rocket companies to carry astronauts beginning in 2017.
Scott Pace, a space policy director at George Washington University, said ISS cooperation remains intact. But there likely will be irritations for NASA scientists working on experiments with Russian researchers or simply trading data.
“We and the Russians have a very deep and integrated relationship. We are reliant on them, as they are on us,” he said. “Divorce is not an option.”