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Government Orders NASA to Suspend Communications With Russia Over Ukraine Crisis

Standing in front of the first stage engines of their Soyuz rocket on 20 September 2013, Soyuz TMA-10M crewmen (left to right) Mike Hopkins (NASA), Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky (both with Roscosmos) clasp hands in solidarity. Photo Credit: NASA

Standing in front of the first stage engines of their Soyuz rocket on 20 September 2013, Soyuz TMA-10M crewmen (left to right) Mike Hopkins (NASA), Oleg Kotov, and Sergei Ryazansky (both with Roscosmos) clasp hands in solidarity. Photo Credit: NASA

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.”

The Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 carrying Expedition 21 Flight Engineer Jeffrey N. Williams (NASA), Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev (Roscosmos) and Spaceflight Participant Guy Laliberté to the International Space Station. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, carrying Expedition 21 Flight Engineer Jeffrey N. Williams (NASA), Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev (Roscosmos), and Spaceflight Participant Guy Laliberté to the International Space Station. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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.

The International Space Station with the docked ESA ATV Johannes Kepler and Space Shuttle Endeavour. Shot taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli from Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking on 24 May 2011.

The International Space Station with the docked ESA ATV Johannes Kepler and Space Shuttle Endeavour. Shot taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli from Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking on 24 May 2011.

“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.

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8 comments to Government Orders NASA to Suspend Communications With Russia Over Ukraine Crisis

  • Mike Copea

    What the hell are they doing? Leave the peaceful exploration of space PEACEFUL. Having a hissy fit over Russian politics has nothing to do with space exploration.

  • Rick Barkley

    This is another April Fools joke right? The US government really isn’t trying to punish Russia in this way, are they? Crimea historically has always been a part of Russia. The people who live there OVERWHELMINGLY want to annex to Russia. The Ukraine is currently being run by a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs. Is the USA foreign policy that out of touch with reality to jeopardize all the good things that are happening not only in space but here on the planet as well between us and Russia? Russia has gotten its act together. it deserves a little respect. The current US administration, on the other hand, is acting like a bunch of drunken, self-righteous monkeys! Sorry, but they deserve no respect IMHO. The whole world is watching at how stupid our US politicians are regarding not only foreign policy but our own domestic policies as well. I can’t wait till our next free elections, when I will vote to throw out every democratic moron in office today and supports the current administrations policies. Enough is enough.

  • Santanu Datta

    Agree with Mike. Please do not interfere with peaceful collaboration where directly or indirectly are multiple stakeholders and larger interest exists.

  • B. Pohnan

    Barack Obama, like most presidents before him, have used, are using, and will use the United States Manned Space Program as extensions of foreign policy. In this case, however, Obama is using it as a hammer in a very clumsy way to “intimidate” the Russians. Unfortunately he seems unaware that because of his and G.W. Bush’s messing around with our manned space program goals, funding, and the poor leadership NASA Admin Bolden is providing, we are pretty much totally dependent on the Russians for a while. For some strange reason I expected better leadership from Obama, I am so disappointed with him in this case.

  • Leo

    The move is more aimed at Congress than the Russians. There are basically five points:

    Commercial crew is a viable solution to ending our dependence on the Russians.

    The companies involved are capable of doing the job.

    The main impediment has been Congress, which has consistently cut the budget requests.

    This approach has made the Russian space program much richer by sending money overseas.

    It’s time to end this nonsense and give a proud space-faring nation the capability to send its own astronauts into space on its own vehicles.

    To me that’s logical. Why send money to Russia when you can spend it here in America?

    • Ameriman

      Why send money to Russia when you can spend it here in America?
      ========== =
      Why continue to flush $17 billion per year down the bloated, pork driven Federal Govt agency Nasa toilet,
      when you can get 10 times more results for 10 times less money with innovative, efficient, spirited American private enterprise.
      SpaceX takes about 100 people to launch it’s rockets… Nasa took over 13,100 KSC ‘workers’ to launch each shuttle, Nasa keeps over 8,500 KSC ‘workers’ despite no Nasa rocket launch between 2011 and at least 2018…
      Nasa has over 15,000 JSC ‘workers’ on ‘astronaut support for only 2 american ISS astronauts….
      Nasa has blown over $500 billion on US manned space since Apollo, without getting a single American beyond low earth orbit, leaving itself incompetent/incapable of crewing or even resupplying our own space station…
      The US space program is too important to be further entrusted to bloated pork driven Federal Agency Nasa.

      • It would be technically unsound to get rid of the current, highly trained NASA launch and spacecraft personnel when we will be launching NASA’s newest spacecraft in just 8 months and the rocket and crewed spacecraft in just 3 years. Training a new batch of personnel and trying to regain the lost institutional experience currently held by NASA’s people would cost far more than is now being spent, never mind the lives that would be put at risk.

        But if it makes you feel better, several thousand NASA and contractor employees were fired in 2010 after the Obama Administration and it’s people at NASA terminated Constellation.

        I’m curious, are you an engineer or work in the space business?

    • I guess you don’t get it, there will be no where to send astronauts if the ISS is not supported by Russia and there is not a Trillion dollars to build a new one. Projects like space exploration are too expensive for any one nation to afford and that’s why Russia, China, and India will combine their programs and reach Mars, not us. Just remember Ukraine if you live that long,