USA and Russia Tensions Have Reached Space
Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

USA And Russia Tensions Have Reached Space

Manon Lamy March 9, 2022

When you hear of tensions between the US and Russia in space, you don’t think 2022. You think back to the Cold War era and the space race between the USSR and the United States. Is the post Cold War era of space collaboration between Russia and the US over?

When Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two weeks ago, no one thought the tensions would escalate all the way to the ISS, 400 km above Earth. However, following the sanctions imposed by the West and the US, things have started to deteriorate.

What role does Russia play in the ISS?

The ISS has 16 habitable modules. Russia and America are two of the biggest contributors. The Russians provide six modules, the American provide eight modules. The rest are split between the Japan Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA). If Russia were to pull its modules from the station, it’s difficult to predict what could happen.

Furthermore, Russia provides the propellant and thrusters that keep the station in orbit. It is with those same thrusters that the station will one day re-enter the atmosphere and guide it into its crash site. The Space Station is based on international collaboration. The US can’t run the Russian modules and the Russians can’t run the American modules.

The collaboration between America and Russia at the end of the Cold War was a major feat of international collaboration. The conflict had seen a lot of tension between the USSR and America, especially in space. Furthermore, since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2012, the US was reliant on Soyuz capsules to ferry its astronauts to the space station. NASA now uses Space X to take its astronauts back and forth.

Tensions on earth are also felt in space

In the days following the invasion of Ukraine, the director of Roscosmos caused alarm with some of his tweets. Dmitry Rogozin put into question the future of Russian participation with the ISS following the sanctions imposed by Joe Biden and the West. Through a series of tweets, he emitted the idea of letting the ISS crash into America or Europe.

‘If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?’

The Russians have terminated commercial Soyuz launch operations at the ESA’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, and have also cut off sales for Russian engines used in the US rockets.

In a situation like this, we can’t supply the United States with our world’s best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.

Rogozin spoke these words on state media as Russia was hit with more sanctions by the West. Russia still has two Russian cosmonauts on the ISS. NASA astronaut Mark Van Dei is scheduled to travel back to Earth in the Soyuz on March 30th.

NASA is trying to promote a sense of normalcy on the station. They continue to share news of the astronauts and of the science experiments conducted. However, the Russians have announced that they will no longer work with Germany on experiments on the ISS.

Politics is not supposed to influence the happenings of the ISS. Yet, this is not the first time it has. Following the 2014 invasion of Chechnya, the Russians had hit back due to American sanctions.

Could Russia really pull out from the space station?

Many experts have said that it is highly unlikely that Russia would pull its modules out. However, Russia and Roscosmos have invested a lot of money and time into the ISS. It would not be in their favour to pull out or decide to not send any more cosmonauts. If they were to remove their modules, private companies like Space X and Northrop Grumman could step in.

However, while NASA is putting on a brave face saying everything is fine, if Russia pulls out it will have consequences that NASA might not have considered.

While Russia has plans of developing their own station, for now they are reliant on the ISS.

The future of international collaboration in space without Russia

Many countries, including Poland and Ukraine, have now joined NASA in signing the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Accords are a set of principles that outline the peaceful and responsible exploration of the moon and beyond as NASA’s Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the moon in this decade. Romania has just joined the accords as a very important partner.

The result of the war on Ukraine has been isolating for Russia. They have been hit left and right by sanctions. Countries have burned their bridges with the country. Roscosmos was supposed to send a rover to Mars in partnership with ESA but we can assume that will no longer happen.

There is no doubt that we must now see a world where space exploration will happen without Russian cosmonauts. Some would argue that we have entered a new chapter of space history. One that looks a little too familiar to the space race during the Cold War years.

Read next: The future of space is female

Have something to tell us about this article?
Let us know
Manon is a freelance journalist for Freshered. She joined Freshered in February 2022 where she is still working today. As a freelance journalist she enjoys covering everything from international politics to Formula 1 and travelling. Manon is currently in her final year of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham after returning from a year abroad in Vienna, Austria. She hopes to continue her studies in Journalism.