Russian officials announced this week that as of 2020, Russia would oppose extending the International Space Station (ISS) project, a move designed to hurt the United States that could have serious repercussions for all of us.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the press this week that Russia was now inclined to reject the U.S. proposal to extend the International Space Station project beyond its original 2020 deadline to 2024. This is largely being seen as retaliation against the United States for sanctions levied at Russia over Russia’s appearing to escalate violence and political unrest in the Ukraine.
“We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicizes everything,” Rogozin told a news conference this week.
The ISS effort has been as much a political statement as one of technological and human wonder, coming as it did after the Cold War and as a sign of Russian-US relations. The station, supported by a collaboration of 15 nations, cost $100 billion and is today manned by both Russian and U.S. crew. Russia’s suggested refusal to allow continuing the ISS effort says in no uncertain terms that the good times between the two superpowers are now over.
In addition to stonewalling an extension on the ISS, the Russian Prime Minister said that Russia will, as of June, no longer allow GPS satellite navigation system sites within its borders or territories. Washington had previously floated the idea of denying export licenses for technology that could help the Russian military as a response to Russia’s perceived agitating of the precarious Ukraine situation. The GPS block, then, is payment in kind for that. Furthermore, Russia will no longer allow for the export of its high-caliber engines to the United States if, that is, the U.S. is planning on using them for military operations.
The United States and Russia’s declining good space relationship has actually been deteriorating for a while, and mostly in stages that tally with its Earth-bound disputes. NASA has already cancelled most collaboration efforts with Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, and Canada too has pulled back on plans to launch satellites via the Soyuz rocket — this having been taken as a sign of support for the United States’ stand against Russia’s continuing human rights backslide.
Russia’s blocking of the ISS, though, is at best shortsighted and could seriously damage Russia’s own future data gathering and research efforts.
The Russian authorities contend they are thinking ahead to 2020 and that, after the deadline, they will move toward projects that they deem more promising. Rogozin’s comments here show how petulant relations have become, with him quoted as saying, “The Russian segment (of the Space Station crew) can exist independently from the American one. The US one cannot.” Technically that’s true for the moment, but not for long. The United States has already made provisions elsewhere and is working with transport firms to have new space vehicles (so-called space taxis) ready by 2017.
Yet, in pushing away the United States and risking relations with Europe, Russia leaves itself with only a few major allies. Critics believe that this so-called space war could backfire dramatically, but remember that at the moment this is all just hot-headed talk. Russia hasn’t actually done anything.
What really seems Russia’s point in this bold statement is a shot across the bow, not for the United States but for Europe, which so far has tenuous but still surviving relations with the Russian space agency.
Europe has backed the United States in its demands that Russia cease fanning tensions in the Ukraine and provoking civil unrest. Europe has also been vocal about Russia’s continued resistance to the human rights obligations it made as part of the EU. Russia is incredibly annoyed by all this, and one of the ways it perhaps has power to affect Europe is to flex its muscles with a threat of spurning further cooperation for space exploration. As we’ve noted above, the United States can and will carry on even if Russia does oppose it ever again having access to the ISS (which admittedly would still tarnish what was such a wonderful achievement for the world), but Europe’s position is more unsure working, as it is forced to, as a collective of many individuals countries all with their own priorities (and some of them suffering severe austerity measures).
It would of course be a double shame if this Russia-Europe-U.S. breakdown in relations was to impede space research and technological development, because the sector is particularly innovative. Most recently it has provided us with improved means of making the wheelchair-bound able to walk again, and technology that can help make air travel even safer. The entire argument also goes to show just how petty things appear to have become, even as violence escalates in the Ukraine.
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