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Former NASA chief criticizes 'schizophrenic' US space policy regarding Russia

Russia has apparently been a frustrating spaceflight partner for at least a decade.

Two former NASA administrators, Jim Bridenstine and Charles Bolden, described having a tense relationship with the major International Space Station (ISS) partner during livestreamed remarks on Sunday (Aug. 28).

While current NASA officials say that relations with Russia regarding the ISS continue as usual these days, many of Russia's space partnerships have weakened or dissolved in the wake of the nation's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russia has also taken controversial spaceflight actions recently; for example, it conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November 2021 that created a cloud of new debris that has threatened the ISS multiple times. 

Bridenstine and Bolden said there were deep issues with Russia during their respective tenures at the helm of NASA. They called for a careful look at the agency's international partnerships during the ongoing Artemis program of moon exploration.

"I will tell you that our nation's policy towards Russia, when you consider spaceflight, is schizophrenic," Bridenstine said during Monday's livestreamed event at Arizona State University. He led NASA between April 2018 and January 2021, having been belatedly appointed during the Trump administration.

Related: Russia wants to build its own space station, as early as 2028 (photos)

Bridenstine criticized NASA for being "overdependent" on Russia during the decade that it took to develop commercial crew alternatives after the space shuttle program ended in 2011. The situation required NASA to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until SpaceX's Crew Dragon was ready to carry humans in May 2020.

On Sunday, Bridenstine said that Congress is making the same mistake with regard to the ISS, as Russia is now saying it will pull out after 2024 to focus on building a Russian-owned space station. He expressed worry that NASA-funded commercial stations will not be ready in time to fill gaps in low Earth orbit research. (The agency is banking on the ISS partnership being extended to 2030, from 2024, to allow time for those replacements to get up and running.)

"Congress, quite frankly, is at fault for any gap we have on low Earth orbit, because they have been negligent in a replacement for the International Space Station," Bridenstine said. "We've known forever that it [the ISS] is not going to last forever, but we haven't been doing what's necessary to prevent the gap from happening. Now that gap seems to be accelerating, and nobody is talking about it."

Related: The International Space Station will eventually die by fire

Bolden, a former space shuttle commander who served as NASA chief from July 2009 to January 2017 during the two terms of President Barack Obama, said that, from his perspective, the Russian government was a bigger issue than Congress.

Bolden was administrator during a previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014, in which Russia seized the territory of Crimea. After that happened, the United States imposed economic sanctions on politicians such as Dmitry Rogozin — Russia's deputy prime minister at the time, who soon became the leader of Roscosmos, the nation's federal space agency. In response, the blustery Rogozin famously quipped that NASA should put its astronauts on trampolines rather than use the Soyuz to get to space, which was the only method possible for U.S. astronauts in 2014.

Related: 'The trampoline is working!' The story behind Elon Musk's one-liner at SpaceX's big launch

"The space community in Russia is great, [but] it's the government," Bolden said of tensions he had witnessed while leading NASA. Bolden added, however, that he and his colleagues had been focused on opening up space relationships with Russia as well as China.

There are now numerous restrictions regarding U.S. government work with China, which is cementing its status as a major space power. Those restrictions were emplaced for security concerns. 

Bolden said, however, that during his time in charge of NASA, the agency was "on the way to an incredibly cordial program with China" through more low-profile channels such as the International Forum of Aviation Research. "We helped them get the [vice]-presidency of that organization, where we were working on air traffic management," he said.

former nasa administrator charles bolden leaning forward with a microphone

Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in 2015, when he was in office, speaking about commercial crew. Commercial crew development was ongoing during Bolden's eight years in office. (Image credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz)

NASA is working to solidify more international partnerships going forward, not only to spread the costs and responsibilities of the Artemis program but also to establish norms of responsible space exploration. To date, 21 nations have signed the Artemis Accords; Russia is not among them.

Bolden said NASA took "a big risk" in making the European Space Agency's (ESA) service module a part of the critical path of the Orion spacecraft, a key piece of Artemis infrastructure along with the the Space Launch System rocket and Gateway moon-orbiting space station.

Bridenstine countered that ESA "has been a great partner" on the ISS — it's the largest partner aside from Russia and the United States — and he expected the same with Artemis. Furthermore, Artemis aims to return astronauts to the moon "sustainably" for long missions, he said, adding that sharing costs is key to achieving that goal.

Panelist Scott Pace, former executive director of the U.S. National Space Council, added that Europe was also on the critical path for NASA's recently launched James Webb Space Telescope; Webb lifted off atop an Ariane 5 rocket, which is operated by the French company Arianespace. "ESA did a magnificent job with that," he said.

two astronauts on the moon holding rocks

NASA hopes to put astronauts on the moon by 2025, as part of the Artemis program. (Image credit: NASA)

Whether space cooperation spurs international collaboration or is just a lagging indicator of it was also a matter of contention among the attendees of Sunday's event.

But the sustainability of Artemis, space experts on the panel warned, will also come down to ongoing bipartisan support in Congress, which writes the checks for NASA and other government agencies.

Mike Gold, a space lawyer and former NASA official who shepherded the first Artemis Accords into fruition, recalled the two previous times that new NASA-led crewed moon mission efforts fell apart after Apollo, during the two Bush administrations.

"I believe the reasons for that is largely politics," Gold said, "and that's why it's so amazing to see Artemis come together not as a Republican program, not as a Democratic program, but as an American program. As the world's program."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.