Image Credit Wikimedia

Expedition 38, the current crew of the International Space Station

On Monday, March 10, a Russian Soyuz vehicle currently docked with the International Space Station is due to land in Kazakhstan with three passengers onboard. One of those three, Colonel Michael Hopkins, is an American astronaut that has been aboard the orbiting laboratory since September of last year. Under normal circumstances this would be a fairly routine event, but with U.S.-Russian tensions reaching their highest levels in decades, these are far from normal circumstances.

Luckily for Colonel Hopkins, the latest tensions are unlikely to create an issue for the landing. As the craft will be landing in a country not party to the current conflict, Russia is not in a position to impede the American astronaut’s return home, and relations between the American and Russian members of the ISS crew are too collegial for an incident to prevent Hopkins from taking his seat in the return vehicle. The situation for Steven Swanson, the man due to replace Hopkins on March 25, is a bit trickier.

Current sanctions against Russia include a suspension of all joint military cooperation by NATO members with Moscow, and such non-cooperation could extend to other elements of the East-West relationship if Russia annexes Crimea after the March 16th referendum passes as expected. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden attempted to dampen fears of this kind of scenario last week, saying that the International Space Station has been occupied continuously for thirteen years despite incidents like the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Nevertheless, Russia’s continued belligerence and the corresponding sanctions might push a myopic Obama or Putin administration official to call for unprecedented action. Such a call would be a terrible mistake.

As it stands, the Space Station relies on systems housed separately in the Russian and American orbital segments, and Russia blocking the United States from the vessel would likely render the entire $150B research facility unusable, as would a unilateral withdrawal by the United States. For this reason, a wholesale end to US-Russian space cooperation seems too expensive for either party to be willing to risk, even if the conflict escalates further. There is precedent for such cooperation, after all, as the United States assisted with communications for a number of Soviet robotic space probes during the 1980s as well as launching an Apollo module to dock with a Soviet Soyuz during 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Soviet-US cooperation occurred throughout most of the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, despite the ups and downs of Cold War relations, and there’s no reason to believe that mutually beneficial cooperative efforts that are already underway can’t continue, even in a new Cold War.

Of course, it’s always possible that someone will act irrationally or that conditions will get out of hand. Even assuming that Russia and the United States continue to agree on sharing the ISS, Russian authorities could jack up the prices for future Soyuz seats beyond affordability or even refuse to re-negotiate American use of the Soyuz after the current contract expires in June 2017. Worse still, events on the ground might make it impossible for a US astronaut to return home on the Soyuz. While hoping for the best, it would probably be wise to have a plan for these contingencies. Luckily, it seems like we just might.

If the worst happens and a U.S. crew member becomes trapped on the ISS, rescue is technically feasible. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which currently lacks a launch-abort system and cannot be used to send astronauts to the station, is pressurized and designed to splashdown safely on Earth with its payload intact. In an emergency, life support and seats could be put into an existing Dragon—the next of which is due to arrive at the station after March 16—and an automated landing could be performed by ground control. In the longer term, NASA is currently working with three private companies to develop crewed vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Current budget projections suggest that the program will be ready to launch a manned vessel to the station by 2017 at the latest, and new support from previously-hesitant budget hawks in light of the Crimean crisis could bring the start of the program forward.

Russia’s space prominence is one of the few elements of its Soviet-era superpower status that remains, and Russia’s justifiable pride will likely keep the ISS flying for the foreseeable future.  Nevertheless, increased hostility between the United States and Russia brings with it a great deal of risk for the American space program. Among all this worry, there is a silver lining: in an age where Europe and the United States appear totally opposed to using force to counter Russian ambitions in the former Soviet Union, other means of conflict and competition—diplomatic, cultural, and scientific—might emerge just as they did in the 20th Century. Russo-American tensions might finally provide U.S. policymakers the kick in the pants they need to make spaceflight a priority again.

Image credit: NASA

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