Could Russia's military and political actions in Ukraine upend science and exploration in outer space?
International political tensions are high after Russia invaded Ukraine this week, with attacks beginning near the capital Kyiv as well as in Kharkiv near the Russian border. The world hasn't witnessed a "move like this, nation state-to-nation state, since World War II ... certainly nothing on this size and scope and scale," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters today (Feb. 24), CNN reported (opens in new tab).
Russian President Vladimir Putin "has put himself on the wrong side of history," leaders of a G7 meeting said in a joint statement today, according to CNN (opens in new tab). The meeting included U.S. President Joe Biden, who has previously voiced support for Ukraine in this conflict, among other world leaders.
The U.S. and Russia have collaborated in space for decades, but this recent action by Russia raises questions about its potential effects in space.
Russia and the U.S. in space
The U.S. and what is now Russia started out as solely competitors in space, with the first human spaceflight programs chasing to accomplish exploratory milestones first in what is historically known as the space race. The competition, fanned by the flames of the Cold War, pushed the U.S. to land the first human on the moon in 1969, eight years after the Soviet Union sent the first human to space.
But with time, the two countries also began to work together. In 1975, in the midst of the ongoing Cold War, the two nations joined together for what was the first international space partnership: the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a nine-day mission that saw an Apollo spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts dock with a Soyuz craft carrying Soviet cosmonauts in orbit during a test flight.
While this mission saw the two nations briefly coming together, what came later saw the U.S. and Russia collaborate on a much larger scale, specifically in regard to the International Space Station (ISS) program as well as sharing rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
"I think part of the intent of the ISS program was to ... have a program where the U.S. and Russian space sectors were so closely tied together that it became sort of unthinkable to have conflict," David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, told Space.com. (Burbach's statements are personal and do not reflect the opinion of the U.S. Navy.)
But the two nations have seen their fair share of conflict as well. Recently, in 2021, Russia conducted an unexpected anti-satellite missile test against a defunct satellite in Earth's orbit. U.S. government officials spoke out about the risks and dangers created by such a test, which created thousands of pieces of debris and targeted a satellite that was near the space station. This created significant risk for the astronauts and cosmonauts living aboard the orbiting lab, and the station's inhabitants had to take immmediate action to protect themselves in case of collision.
These are just a few examples but show the spectrum of collaboration, competition and conflict between the U.S. and Russia in space.
Future of the ISS
One major collaboration between the two nations has been the International Space Station, a multinational collaboration. NASA and Russia's space agency Roscosmos are among five agencies that participate (the others are the Japanese space agency JAXA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, which does not include Ukraine.) The station is set to retire as early as 2025, although in December the Biden-Harris administration made a commitment to extend the program through 2030.
Russia has also recently threatened to leave the ISS program over U.S. sanctions. The U.S. has put additional sanctions in place (opens in new tab) in response to Russia's movement into Ukraine, reigniting the conversation over whether Russia might leave the space station program now. However, NASA has said that at this time the ISS partners continue to work together and cooperate.
"NASA continues working with the State Space Corporation Roscosmos (Roscosmos) and our other international partners in Canada, Europe and Japan to maintain safe and continuous International Space Station operations," NASA spokesperson Dan Huot told Space.com in an email.
Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin has posted a Russian-language statement on Twitter about the relationship between the two agencies. He stated through the official Roscosmos channel that Roscosmos "values professional relations with NASA."
💬 #ЦИТАТА Генеральный директор Роскосмоса Дмитрий Рогозин заявил, что Госкорпорация дорожит профессиональными отношениями с NASA. pic.twitter.com/MIg6XBu2faFebruary 23, 2022
These agency statements suggest that spaceflight will continue as usual. "I think it is probably unlikely, where things stand now, to get to the point of causing the U.S. and Russia to stop working together on [the] ISS," Burbach said.
Burbach added that, because the nations are so interconnected in their work on the space station, it wouldn't really be possible for Russia to exit the partnership without the whole mission falling apart. "It's just not built that way," he said. For example, the U.S. and Russian segments of the orbiting laboratory depend on each other for vital functions such as life support systems and communications.
"So, if we were to really say the partnership is over, we [would] pretty much both be saying the ISS is over. And I don't think either country wants to do that," Burbach said. He added that there would likely have to be very significant warfare between the nations back on Earth for such a thing to happen.
While it seems that the ISS partnership remains intact, there are still serious political tensions between the U.S. and Russia. However, it seems that there will be no change of plans for NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who has been at the space station since April 2021. Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth on March 30, touching down in Kazakhstan, aboard the same Russian Soyuz capsule he launched in.
"On March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth," Huot added. "So no change to his return."
The landing will be noteworthy in its own right. Upon his return, "Vande Hei will hold the American record for the longest single human spaceflight mission of 355 days," Huot noted.
What will happen
Although the existing station partnership between the U.S. and Russia remains, the U.S. has long planned to decrease its dependence on Soyuz capsules to ferry NASA astronauts to and from space.
When NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, its astronauts were left without a vehicle to fly to the space station, so the agency began paying Russia to launch crewmembers aboard its Soyuz capsules. The U.S. initiated a commercial crew program to build new launch capabilities to fly from the U.S., but SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule only began flying in 2020, and Boeing's Starliner capsule has yet to successfully reach the space station.
NASA has long said it aims to continue to fly astronauts on Soyuz capsules and to fly cosmonauts on U.S. commercial vehicles. While no Russian has yet made a SpaceX flight, Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina was selected in December of 2021 to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew-5 mission to the station.
It is yet to be seen how these ride-sharing partnerships evolve as U.S. commercial vehicles advance. But Burbach suggested that other significant developments could arise in orbit from Russia's conflict on Earth.
"This will be one of the first times that we've seen a country other than the United States making use of significant space capabilities to support military operations," Burbach said. "We've seen the Russians doing some of that in Syria; if things become a really major conflict in Ukraine, Russia will no doubt be using their own space-based navigation and communication intelligence."
He noted that in response, nations like the U.S. may provide space-based support to Ukraine through its own satellite fleet.
Also, with technology being so advanced not just within space agencies but within smaller space companies, space-based information and technology is more available than ever. As satellite images of Russian military movements captured by Maxar Technologies show, private companies can now capture and distribute high-resolution images of Earth — "what just a few years ago would have been top-secret, amazing, government-quality information," Burbach said. "How is that going to change conflict, that there's that much information available?"
The conflict might also prompt nations to try to interfere with those same commercial satellites, Burbach noted. If such interference does occur, it would be especially notable both because Ukraine doesn't have its own reconnaissance satellites and would therefore be at a disadvantage and also because of both the U.S. and Russia's history of conducting anti-satellite missile tests.
For now, it seems that the effects of Russia's invasion are relegated to Earth, with the attacks just beginning and already 40 people killed, according to the Independent (opens in new tab).
But as this fledgling war erupts, will we see repercussions stretch into outer space? Will the Cold War rivalry that ignited the space race return with this new political upheaval? Only time will tell.