NASA instructed its staff to stop cooperating with the Russian Federal Space Agency. The agency claims this is a choice between funding Russia or developing our own rockets, but astronaut Ron Garan disagrees. In his view, we shouldn't be bringing political conflict into orbit.
Russia's Soyuz rocket docked to the International Space Station after dropping off Expedition 38. Photo credit: NASA
After confirming just last month that current tensions between the United States and Russia would not impact the space program, NASA reversed course with an internal memo that was inevitably leaked. In it, NASA prohibits all bilateral communication, unless a specific exception is granted:
Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted. This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences.
After the news circuits jumped on the story, NASA released a short public statement justifying their instructions:
Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we're now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. 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. It's that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.
The Expedition 39 crew currently on the station must be grateful for the exception — it'd be both hilariously and depressingly awkward if the three Russian cosmonauts and two American astronauts are currently sharing the station needed to use the sole Japanese astronaut as a mediator/go-between. "Commander Wakata, kindly request that cosmonaut move his hiney so I can squeeze past in this cramped corridor" "Koichi, please instruct the American astronaut to pass me the wrench so that I may repair our fragile shell protecting us from the abrupt death of hard vacuum." Plus, without a Russian rocket, they'd be all out of luck for hitching a ride home.
Commander Wakata happily handles fruit-distribution, but how would he take to acting as intermediary between cosmonauts and astronauts? Photo credit: NASA
But, is the United States really cooperating with the Russia on anything space-related that isn't the International Space Agency? Not really. Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted, "Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA anyway."
So, if this suspension of cooperation doesn't really impact any ongoing projects, and may lead to the faster development of the homegrown shuttle replacement, who cares? NASA astronaut, NEEMO aquanaut, and two-time International Space Station inhabitant Ron Garan does. In a post titled, "Space, the Shared Frontier," Garan passionately argues:
In any crisis the worst thing we can do is stop talking.
We should not allow NASA and the Nobel Peace Prize nominated International Space Station program to be used as pawns in political conflict.
The international space exploration partnership is one of the greatest collaborative international partnerships in history. It makes no sense to potentially sacrifice what works well in order to apply pressure to salvage something that doesn't.
Astronaut Ron Garan can fix the Combustion Integrated Rack Multi-user Drop Combustion Apparatus, but can he fix NASA bringing a terrestrial conflict into orbit? Photo credit: NASA
He continues with the story of how the docking of Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft in 1975 marked an historic handshake to end the space race miles above the Earth. Garan was a Cold War fighter pilot, so for him, launching with Russian crew mates on a Soyuz rocket on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagrin's history-making flight was a surreal and awe-inspiring moment. This moment of cooperation did not come from nothingness, but was carefully chosen and nurtured:
The willingness to work together on the peaceful exploration of space is nothing new and is probably best illustrated in President Kennedy's famous "We Choose the Moon" speech "For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."... "There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again."
After signing the agreement for the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, noted, "The Soviet and American spacemen will go up into outer space for the first major joint scientific experiment in the history of mankind. They know that from outer space our planet looks even more beautiful. It is big enough for us to live peacefully on it, but it is too small to be threatened by nuclear war" .
Garan brings it all to a rousing conclusion that this cooperation is precious and should be sheltered from terrestrial conflicts. Further, the choice between funding Russia and developing an American launch vehicle is a false dichotomy. He concludes by pleading with us to pressure NASA to abandon its suspension of cooperation.
The international space exploration program rises above all our squabbles here on the ground. We should not drag it down here. We have a history of cooperation even at the height of conflict on the ground. This history serves as a foundation for our international relationships and a shinning light to guide us through the uncertainties ahead.
Yes, the US should develop the capability to once again launch humans into space but once we do, make no mistake, continuing a strong partnership with Russia in space exploration is in the best long-term interest of the US or our other international partners.
Please help spread the word that we should keep dialog open and we should not use the space program as a political tool.
Read Ron Garan's full article here. On Garan's first trip to the International Space Station, he worked on the SPHERES experiment. For more on how NASA's budget impacts the development of a new crew launch vehicle, see here, or here, or here, and watch the always-eloquent Neil deGrasse Tyson rant about it here.