Today, the U.S. Government banned all NASA employees and contractors from any communication with the Russian government and Roscosmos, citing “Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the reason for the decision in an internal email sent by NASA headquarters Wednesday afternoon.
The order comes just days after the second half of the Expedition 39 crew launched to the ISS from Russia, and the ban covers everything from teleconferences to travel, but does NOT ban communications in support of International Space Station Operations.
The email reads as follows:
“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 video conferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted. In addition, multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation are not precluded under the present guidance. If desired, our office will assist in communication with Russian entities regarding this suspension of activities. We remain in close contact with the Department of State and other U.S. Government departments and agencies. If the situation changes, further guidance will be disseminated.”
Poor political leadership and a lack of funding and direction in America’s human spaceflight program has left the U.S. 100 percent dependent on Russia to launch our nation’s astronauts to the ISS for at least the next few years. U.S. taxpayers are currently paying $70 million, per seat, to send astronauts to an orbiting outpost that they—the U.S. taxpayers—paid $60 billion to build, according to NASA (some estimates even push NASA’s tab to over $70 billion, and some even push the price tag to $100 billion).
An official statement released by NASA earlier this evening reads:
“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.”
It’s unclear how Russia will respond to the ban, if at all, but just last week NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden addressed the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee about his concerns if ISS operations were stopped, saying he would recommend suspending work on both the space agency’s deep-space Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) human spaceflight programs if Russia suspends ISS crew transport for NASA.
“We’re fooling everybody that we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there,” said Bolden. “If I can’t get to low-Earth orbit, there is no exploration program.”
Although possible, it is very unlikely Russia would suspend ISS cooperation with NASA because it would not be in their best interest—they simply cannot operate the ISS without NASA (NASA provides power to the ISS and is in charge of navigation and communications operations). NASA, on the other hand, cannot operate the ISS without Roscosmos. Both agencies are needed to operate the orbiting laboratory, so it makes sense to assume that Russia and Roscosmos are just as worried about the potential for suspending ISS operations as NASA and the U.S. government.
“A few years ago, the Administration put forward a public-private partnership plan, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), to ensure that American companies would be launching our astronauts from U.S. soil by 2015,” said Bolden in a blog post last April. “If NASA had received the President’s requested funding for this plan, we would not have been forced to recently sign a new contract with Roscosmos for Soyuz transportation flights.”
“Because the funding for the President’s plan has been significantly reduced, we now won’t be able to support American launches until 2017,” adds Bolden. “Even this delayed availability will be in question if Congress does not fully support the President’s fiscal year 2014 request for CCP, forcing us once again to extend our contract with the Russians. Further delays in our CCP and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States.”
The United States and Russia have worked together in space, with great success, for almost 40 years, and has maintained their partnership through numerous other events in the years since.
“The NASA-Roscosmos relationship has endured previous political crises, such as the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008,” said Bolden. “Our partners are not Russia, our partners are Roscosmos.”
AmericaSpace has reached out to NASA for comments on the internal ban with the Russian government and will update once the space agency makes more information available.