NASA ordered its officials to put an end to communications with Russian government officials and scientists yesterday. The order was leaked through an internal memo, obtained by The Verge, in which the US space agency explained that teleconferences, email exchanges, and meetings with Russian officials were to cease immediately. This ban excludes the International Space Station (ISS) — NASA sent an American astronaut to the station in a Russian capsule just last week — and doesn't pertain to interactions that occur during meetings with multiple countries beyond Russian soil.
"Why is NASA the chosen place to punish Russia?"
"People aren't excited about it. Nobody thinks it's going to be fine," says a NASA scientist who agreed to speak to The Verge on condition of anonymity. "Everyone is wondering, ‘Why are we doing this?' 'Why is NASA the chosen place to punish Russia?'"
The agency confirmed the veracity of the memo last night in a statement that called for an end to its reliance on Russian space transport to the ISS and an increase in NASA funding. "The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians," NASA said. The agency added that the decision to cut ties with Russia should be perceived as a resolution by both NASA and the Obama administration to "invest in America." So what had initially seemed like a push to broaden the ongoing sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine now appears to have more to do with politics within the US than political strife abroad.
"This NASA statement is dismaying beyond belief," says James Oberg, a former rocket scientist and author of Star-Crossed Orbits, a book about US-Russian space missions. "It's dismaying that NASA officials would be directed to use this crisis to score domestic political points on behalf of the White House." Marco Cáceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at Teal Group, is also perturbed. "It sounds like they are trying to use the crisis [in Crimea] as a way to increase NASA's funding," he says, "but it's a disingenuous way of making the case, especially since there are a lot of other good reasons to increase NASA's budget."
"NASA is extremely underfunded as it is."
Currently, the agency's budget is just under $18 billion — a level of funding that the agency has maintained more or less for the last six years. "NASA is extremely underfunded as it is," Cáceres says. "Any recent increases have been barely enough to keep up with inflation."
The current cost of sending a single American astronaut to the ISS is $70 million. But under the White House's 2015 Budget Proposal, NASA says it will be able to start flying astronauts to the International Space Station using privately built spaceships by 2017. The proposal has been touted as a way to put an end to NASA's reliance on Russian shuttles — and is undoubtedly what NASA was referring to yesterday when it said that the agency is "now looking at launching from US soil in 2017."
Who's calling the shots?
"The decision to suspend contact with Russian entities is a US government decision, not a NASA decision," says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a retired law professor at the University of Mississippi who specializes in space law, in an email to The Verge. According to her, NASA likely participated in the decision-making process, but the White House and the State Department would have instigated the ban on Russian communication. They would also have had the final vote. "Ultimately," she says, "NASA will do what the US Government ... directs NASA to do."
The move to stop communications with the Russian Space agency is unprecedented, says Frans von der Dunk, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska, in an email to The Verge, because the ban won't allow scientists and astronauts to interact with their Russian counterparts outside the ISS. "In the Cold War era there was political antagonism, but that did not keep NASA from working with the Soviets on the 1975 in-orbit docking of the Apollo and Soyuz craft," he says. Relations with Russia in space "have always been remarkably friendly," even if the two countries were racing to the moon. And the rivalry between Russia and the US, he says, has always been mainly political — "the astronauts and cosmonauts were always appreciative of each other's achievements."
"We have a little bit of experience with the government being haters."
But that doesn't mean NASA employees aren't used to giving foreign scientists the cold shoulder. "We have a little bit of experience with the government being haters," the NASA scientist says, citing NASA's strained relationship with the Chinese Space program as an example. "When I first started working at NASA, they told us that they won't let the Chinese go on the International Space Station — they don't let us interact with Chinese scientists at all."
Even though NASA's message no longer appears motivated by Russia's interventions in the Ukraine, it could still damage NASA-Russia relations. "For a few years we have been dependent on their transportation, which is maybe awkward, but it was manageable," Oberg says. Ordering NASA employees to cease communicating with Russia could jeopardize the future of the US space program. "There are some steps in space that once undone can't be easily redone," he says, "and I have little confidence that either side is acting rationally at this point."
"The worst thing we can do is stop talking."
NASA astronaut Ron Garan echoed Oberg's concerns on Twitter last night, stating that "in any crisis the worst thing we can do is stop talking. We should not sacrifice what works in an attempt to salvage what doesn't."
Yet others regard the threat as an empty one that it will carry little weight with Russia. "To say that they are cutting off Russian ties, but will continue to work together is sort of soft," Cáceres says, "since the International Space Station is really their only significant relationship." Von der Dunk thinks that suspending contact with Russia will "not be sufficient to keep the Russians from doing what they would be planning to do otherwise [regarding Crimea]." For that to work, he says, "there would certainly be a need for much more and broader sanctions."
Private American operations such as SpaceX aren't ready
Cáceres says he is more concerned with NASA's prediction that the agency will be able to launch from US soil as early as 2017. Even with a marked increase in NASA funding, he says, the likelihood of a US-based launch is minuscule because NASA doesn't currently have access to a viable means of transportation to the ISS. "There really isn't any great option in terms of a vehicle," he says. "Even if you were to increase [NASA's] budget by 10 or 20 percent — maybe even 50 — you still wouldn't have a good way of getting up there." Cáceres says that although NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket system called the Space Launch System, it won't be ready for a crewed spaceflight before 2021. Moreover, von der Dunk says it will be a few years before private US operations such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences can provide flights to and from the ISS. "The only means of access to the ISS for astronauts is the Russian Soyuz system. There's no alternative."
For now, the US space agency and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, will continue to work together to "maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station," NASA says. So although some US programs might be affected by the ban — "NASA officials might not attend some conference or some receptions," Cáceres says — the announcement is largely symbolic. Unfortunately, the consensus among experts appear to be that by trying to hit both Russia and Congress with the same weapon, NASA and the Obama administration are likely to miss their mark entirely.