Russia Announces It Will Cut US Off From ISS Over Ukraine Sanctions

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to cut the U.S. off from the International Space Station by 2020 — a response to U.S. economic sanctions leveled against Russia over the Ukrainian crisis.

Rogozin made the announcement on his English-language Twitter account, where he said the Russian Federal Space Agency “doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the U.S. on the ISS after 2020.”

The deputy prime minister, who’s responsibilities include Russian space policy, has repeatedly threatened U.S. relations in regard to the ISS,  especially in light of increasingly strict economic sanctions imposed over Russia’s illegal intervention and annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

Since the retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on Russian Soyuz space capsules for rides to the ISS, where both American and Russian astronauts consistently live and work. Those seats cost about $70 million-per astronaut, an outrageously and unnecessarily expensive price according to private space exploration firm SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and a significant funding boon to the cash-strapped Russian space agency.

“The Russian segment can exist independently from the American one. The U.S. one cannot,” Rogozin claimed Tuesday. The deputy prime minister went on to state he would also forbid Russia to sell rocket engines to the U.S., which are commonly used to blast military satellites into space.

NASA has since released a statement saying the agency is officially unaware of any of the changes announced by Rogozin.

“Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station,” NASA said.

“Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis with a planned return of crew today and expected launch of a new crew in the next few weeks. We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.”

Even if Rogozin makes good on his threats, they may only serve to do even more economic damage to the eastern giant — in particular the Russian Federal Space Agency — in the long term. So far the U.S. has paid for $100 billion of the $160 billion ISS, and is due to make a payment of $457.9 million to Russia for a number of Soyuz rides.

In addition, NASA had already suspended contact with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, ISS matters being the only exception. Shortly afterward, the agency announced plans to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil again by 2017.

Rogozin’s threat could also prove to be a boon to the private space industry. SpaceX has already worked with NASA to send its first successful resupply mission to the ISS with the help of a new rocket and space capsule, and could now become the new go-to for rockets if Russia refuses to sell Saturn V and Delta IV rocket engines to Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX recently lost a legal battle attempting to force the U.S. Air Force to compete for military satellite launch contracts, but if Rogozin has his way, the Air Force may be forced to look to the private space exploration firm regardless to continue satellite launches.

NASA is expected to choose one or two private American companies to help develop the agency’s next manned spaceflight program, finally replace the shuttle fleet, and establish the U.S.’s primary mode of transportation to the ISS as early as August.

While the list of those companies could include Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing, both of them rely on aforementioned Russian rocket engines. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is not far along in testing, and Orbital Sciences has not announced plans to explore crewed spacecraft development.

Meanwhile SpaceX already has one successful mission to the ISS to its credit — albeit unmanned — and its own proprietary reusable rocket technology to thank — the first of its kind, which if successful, will significantly reduce the cost of launches.

Though Rogozin stated he would still be willing to allow rocket engine sales to the U.S. with a “guarantee they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon,” the financially risk-averse NASA is unlikely to bet on a company that could be grounded at any moment as a result of Russia’s unstable foreign policy, and the ongoing threats of its officials.

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook.