In the weeks since Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops storming into neighboring Ukraine, blowback from that invasion has erupted around the world—and off-world, too. As the crisis deepens, it is increasingly disrupting international cooperation on present and planned projects for space science and exploration, potentially jeopardizing their future.
Much like nesting matryoshka dolls of diminishing sizes that hide their true numbers from view, the war in Ukraine’s full impact on space activities remains to be seen. But already Russia’s actions—and subsequent global reactions—suggest a new iron curtain could destructively fall across a broad range of once promising collaborations.
Responding to massive sanctions led by the U.S. and the European Union, on February 26 Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, pulled its workforce from Europe’s launch site in French Guiana, where Russian-built Soyuz rockets were being prepared for upcoming missions. Now those missions are in limbo. Roscosmos went on to prompt the cancellation of a Soyuz launch from its own Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan when it demanded that the London-based company OneWeb guarantee that the rocket’s payload of 36 global communications satellites would not be used for military purposes and that the U.K. withdraw its investment in the company. OneWeb and the U.K. did not agree to those conditions.
Then there is the saga of the Spektr-RG space telescope, a joint mission between Russia and Germany that launched in July 2019 and that carries, among other things, Germany’s eROSITA x-ray instrument. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) placed eROSITA into hibernation. DLR’s executive board then went further, terminating all collaboration activities with Russian institutions on current and planned projects, citing Russia’s military aggression as the cause. Russia responded by rescinding its support for ongoing German-Russian experiments on the International Space Station (ISS).
There was, of course, much more international—and even interplanetary—ire to spread around. The ISS, assembled and crewed across decades through a politically sacrosanct U.S.-Russian partnership struck in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, is kept aloft by regular boosts from Russian resupply missions. But Roscosmos has implied it could eliminate those boosts and decouple its modules from the space station, in theory allowing the rest of the ISS to crash and burn as its orbit decays. By expediting its pullout from the ISS, Russia could then turn to an emerging partnership with China, hammering out details of both nations’ plans to collaborate on building a crewed lunar outpost.
NASA’s public response to Russia’s threats has been muted, merely noting that it continues to work with all its international partners for the ISS’s ongoing safe operation and that no changes to the agency’s support for the facility are presently planned.
The strife is impacting otherworldly missions as well: Consider Russia’s nascent Venera-D mission, a proposed orbiter and lander meant to blast off for Venus in 2029. The U.S. had been considering allowing NASA to collaborate on Venera-D, perhaps by contributing scientific instruments. But, citing retaliatory sanctions, Russia’s space leadership deemed continued U.S. participation in the project “inappropriate.”
And in what appears to be the most significant casualty so far for cooperative space exploration, the conflict in Ukraine has delayed, if not outright scuttled, the long-awaited European-Russian ExoMars 2022 mission, which included a European Space Agency (ESA) rover dubbed Rosalind Franklin. Some 20 years in the making, the mission was slated to lift off from Baikonur atop a Proton booster in late September 2022. But on February 28 ESA declared that timing “very unlikely.” The best-case scenario, then, would have the ExoMars rover launching in 2024, when Mars and Earth are once again appropriately aligned—presuming that the project is not further delayed by earthbound politics or even canceled outright. Its fate could become clearer after the next ESA Council meeting of the space agency’s 22 member states.
NASA has a stake in ExoMars, too, having contributed to the mission’s parachute systems and scientific instrumentation, notes Colleen Hartman, former head of the space agency’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate and current director for space and aeronautics at Space Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. During her NASA tenure, she and her colleagues helped ensure that ExoMars survived numerous technical and budgetary near-death experiences “through solid partnerships among scientists, engineers and management across spacefaring, peaceful nations.” Seeing “Russia’s unlawful and immoral aggression” cause the mission to slip away “is heartbreaking,” she says.
Fiery Words, Frozen Projects
As this escalating cycle of reprisal diminishes one mighty but delicate project after another, some of those involved have begun shifting the conflict from political to personal. Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, already notorious for a Twitter-based tirade in 2014 telling NASA to launch its astronauts via “trampoline,” recently unleashed volleys of even more incendiary statements. After a hacker group claimed to have shut down Russian satellite operations in response to the invasion of Ukraine, Rogozin asserted that such interference would be an act of war. And in a series of tweets in February, he seemingly threatened to deorbit the ISS onto U.S. or European territory. This time around, he said early this month, U.S. astronauts could get to orbit by riding “broomsticks.”
On March 2, Rogozin tweeted a video showing Roscosmos workers removing U.S. and Japanese flags from a Russian ISS resupply rocket. Without those flags, Rogozin added, “our rocket would look more beautiful.”
That drew a pointed rebuke from former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, whose space-travel portfolio includes a near year-long stay on the ISS. “Without those flags and the foreign exchange they bring in, your space program won’t be worth a damn,” Kelly wrote in a direct reply on Twitter. Rogozin, he added, should consider finding a new job at McDonald’s—“if McDonald’s still exists in Russia.” (The fast-food company announced it would pause operations in Russia two days after Kelly’s tweet.)
Rogozin, for his part, responded to advise Kelly that “perhaps the dementia and aggression that you have developed is a consequence of the overload and stress of four flights into space. I invite you to undergo an examination at the Brain Institute of our Federal Medical and Biological Agency.”
These and other heated public exchanges among spaceflight elites are emblematic of the icy chill that now grips U.S.-Russian space relations, which are approaching lows not seen since the height of the cold war.
The End of an Illusion
“Basically, I think it’s the end of an illusion that working with your former opponent in space will spill over to better relations on Earth,” suggests longtime space policy authority John Logsdon, a professor emeritus and former director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University.
Interdependence between NASA and Roscosmos was planned with unrealistic and optimistic assumptions, Logsdon opines—chief among them that U.S. and Russian interests could ever be truly aligned. “We are in this position with malice aforethought,” he says. “So, in a sense, sooner or later, this marriage of convenience was going to break up.”
Taking a look at the tomorrows to come, the most likely future in Logsdon’s mind is competing coalitions. “I think that’s the shape of the future,” he says. “The Russian [civil space] program is not in robust condition anyway. They really don’t have much going on. And in the possible Russian-Chinese partnership, it’s China that is going to be the leader, not Russia.”
The repercussions for the world’s space efforts are very unfortunate for now and in the long term, says Lisa Gaddis, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Tex.
“International partnerships and cooperation between Russia and many spacefaring nations has existed for many years now, and they have been very productive and encouraging as we’ve worked together to explore space,” Gaddis says. “It is very difficult to see those relationships crumble as a result of this conflict. Missions and opportunities may be lost for years, if not permanently, and it may be difficult to restore many long-term research collaborations.”
What these disruptions emphasize, Gaddis says, is that despite its status as the latest international pariah, Russia has been a very important partner in many aspects of space exploration. “It will be a sad loss to many space scientists if those relationships are lost or damaged,” she adds.
Old Rules Do Not Apply
The deleterious effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine on space science and exploration may only be the opening shots in a much more devastating battle, says Brian Harvey, a chronicler of global space activities and author of the recently published book European-Russian Space Cooperation: From de Gaulle to ExoMars (Springer, 2021).
“Perhaps the most striking feature of current events is the way in which the old rules have been torn up. Space cooperation used to be one of the few areas of human endeavor sheltered from the worst of the old cold war standoff but is now one of its first casualties,” Harvey says. The delay of ExoMars in particular, he notes, verges on tragic because the mission constitutes the largest ever integrated cooperative project between Russia and Europe and was mere months away from launch.
“ESA originally declared that it was unaffected but quickly came under political or social media pressure and changed its view, announcing that the project was ‘unlikely’ this year, subsequently setting up a task force to find an alternative approach,” Harvey says. Because the mission’s European- and Russian-built components are so intertwined, however, they cannot be readily disentangled to meet politically motivated demands, no matter how long the delay. ExoMars, Harvey speculates, would now be very lucky to ever be launched at all. “Its parts will have limited warranties,” he says. “The rover is more likely to end up in a museum or to have its parts cannibalized.”
As yet unknown is the fate of Europe’s significant investment in Russia’s robotic return to the moon via the country’s series of Luna missions. As of this writing, Luna-25 is still officially projected to launch in July, carrying several Russian instruments and one developed by ESA—a technology demonstrator for a new terrain navigation system called the Pilot-D camera. This Pilot system, in turn, is intended to serve as the main navigation capability for Russia’s Luna-27 lander, which is also meant to deploy the ESA-provided Prospect drill to search for water ice and other useful materials lurking within the lunar terrain.
“No ESA statement has been made on these yet, but granted what has happened so far, [Europe’s participation in the Luna missions] is unlikely to survive,” Harvey says. “Russia may well rebuild these spacecraft with its own equipment at the cost of a delay.”
Harvey senses there may be a mistaken assumption that the Russian space program in general and space science in particular cannot survive isolation imposed by Western nations. “This is not necessarily the case because both thrived during the lengthy period of isolation of the Soviet period. Ultimately it will be a domestic political decision by whoever is in the Kremlin as to its political and financial priority.”
Confrontation over Cooperation
In a statement, Lennard Fisk, president of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which advises the United Nations on space policy, expressed the committee’s “deep dismay and concern” regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “COSPAR reaffirms its long-standing position that science is a platform for dialogue even in times of profound geopolitical conflict, and therefore a resource on which to capitalize to restore and preserve peace,” Fisk wrote. “The isolation and exclusion of important scientific communities is detrimental to all.”
In subsequent remarks to Scientific American, Fisk supports the sanctions that are increasingly isolating Russia and crippling its economy as an appropriate response to counter the country’s aggression. A chastened Russia, he speculates, could still edge back from the brink of even more ruinous outcomes, salvaging chances for future space-centric collaborations (and much else). But time is running out.
“Will there come a time when the aggression hopefully stops, and cooperation is encouraged again? Perhaps. We need to recognize, however, that there may not be anything to cooperate with,” Fisk says. “Meaningful activities in space, particularly in space science and human space exploration, require an economy that can support such activities. I suspect that the Russian economy will not be able to provide the needed support for a long time to come.”
Assuming, that is, it can provide the needed support even now. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute and former executive secretary of the Trump administration’s National Space Council, says Russia’s space efforts have been in decline for many years. “They haven’t developed a commercial industry, and they’re now going to be more isolated than ever.”
The resulting decay of Russia’s role in international space projects is unfortunate, Pace concludes, but is unlikely to pose insurmountable challenges to the rest of the global scientific community. “The Russians have chosen confrontation in space over cooperation,” he says. “We’ll see how that works out for them.”