The American Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis docks at the Russian space station Mir on June 29, 1995. Image source: NASA.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was in its final days. The communist nation's financial exhaustion led the Gorbachev regime to seek a space partnership with the United States, which was flush with cash and starting a new commercial launch industry.
The George H.W. Bush administration saw an opportunity to end decades of Russian enmity, signalling an end to the Cold War and perhaps finding a partner for the President's Space Exploration Initiative.
The United States was planning a space station, named Freedom by President Reagan in July 1988, but the project lacked strong Congressional support. NASA's bureaucracy came under fire from a 1990 committee appointed by President Bush, which faulted the agency for “a natural tendency for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost.” The committee found that “NASA has not been sufficiently responsive to valid criticism and to the need for change.” A partnership with Russia might help sway skeptical members of Congress, arguing that it would reduce costs.
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990 worried American political leaders, not only because of the threat to oil supplies and regional stability in the Middle East, but also the potential for desperate unpaid Soviet aerospace engineers to seek employment with rogue nations willing to pay well for their talents.
And so it was that the American and Russian space agencies, after decades of competition for international prestige, began to form partnerships.
International Launch Services, a business partnership between Lockheed Martin and Russian companies Khrunichev and RSC Energia, offered commercial uncrewed launch services on an American Atlas or a Russian Proton booster. Take your pick.
The Soviets had operated space stations in low Earth orbit since Salyut 1 launched in April 1971. Many smaller stations had orbited since then, a frequent destination for cosmonauts in Soyuz capsules, and for Progress robotic cargo ships. The Soviet Union had far more experience with space stations than did the United States; a new space station called Mir was under construction, with its first module launched in 1986. Unlike Freedom, which would require the Space Shuttle (and therefore risk the lives of crew) for assembly, Mir was assembled using Proton boosters. The Bush administration saw an opportunity for transfer of the Soviets' technology and expertise to NASA.
Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin in December 1991. The new Russian president, at a June 1992 summit with Bush, signed an agreement that became the foundation for American and Russian joint dependency in space for human space flight. Among the agreement's provisions:
- A rendezvous between the Space Shuttle and Mir
- Possible use of Russian technology on Space Station Freedom
- American approval for a U.S.-built telecommunications satellite to launch on Proton
Bill Clinton succeeded Bush as the U.S. President in January 1993. The Clinton administration continued to expand cooperation in space with Russia. At an April 1993 summit in Vancouver, Yeltsin said that he and Clinton had “decided to join forces, the U.S. and Russian administrations,” in space.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President Bill Clinton at Vancouver in April 1993. Image source: UPI.
In the last years of the 20th Century, the U.S. succeeded in persuading Russia to join the other space station partners —Europe, Japan, and Canada — in a unified project. Mir would be abandoned, and elements of Freedom would now be joined to Russian modules to assemble an International Space Station.
The core section was an American-financed, Russian-built module called Zarya (Russian for "Dawn"), which provided the first propulsion and power for the station. It was followed by the Russian segment's Zvezda (Russian for "Star") module, which housed the first crews. Assembly of the rest of the ISS was largely completed by Space Shuttle missions.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, the American and Russian human space flight programs had merged, reliant upon one another. U.S. space companies had become intertwined with their Russian counterparts, which came to rely on their American partners as a reliable source of revenue. Lockheed Martin, the earliest significant American company to embrace partnership with Russia, chose the Russian RD-180 engine for its new Atlas V booster. The first Atlas V launched in 2002.
After the Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost on re-entry in February 2003, NASA turned to the Russian space agency Roscosmos for ISS crew and cargo deliveries. Had there been no partnership with Russia, the other nations would have had no means of rotating crews or transporting payloads until the Space Shuttle returned to flight thirty months later.
Comity goes only so far in international relations. It's an axiom that nations will always act in their own self-interest.
Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote about self-interest in 1776 his fundamental work of classic economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Associate professor of political science Lauren Hall wrote for Adam Smith Works in 2018:
Rather than defending active vice as something that leads to virtue, Smith is critical of vicious behavior and argues in both “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that benevolent and virtuous behaviors are both necessary and desirable for stable social orders. Far from providing rationale for selfish material pursuits, Smith’s self-interest, properly understood, encourages a kind of virtue that protects both individuals and their communities. Smith’s self-interest is the foundation not just of economic order, but, along with sympathy, for the moral order on which the larger economic order rests. Self-interest, it turns out, is a key component in the creation of a stable, just, and orderly society in which individuals are secure and able to pursue their own goals.
Hall distinguishes between self-interest and selfishness:
The impartial spectator (Smith’s version of a conscience), which is built up over long experience, generally looks kindly on the pursuit of self-interest. It is, after all, nothing more than what everyone pursues. At the same time, the impartial spectator, impartial as he is, draws a sharp line between self-interest that is neutral in its effects on others and self-interest that harms others to benefit oneself.
Two significant events near the end of this century's first decade forewarned that the self-interests of the United States and Russia in space were about to diverge.
A year after the loss of Columbia, the George W. Bush administration announced its Vision for Space Exploration. The VSE aimed to return humans (presumably Americans) to the Moon by 2020, “in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.”
The VSE also declared that the U.S. would, “Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.”
No specific mention was made of Russia.
As for the ISS, the U.S. would honor its commitment to its international partners to complete the station, but its purpose would change from science to “understanding how the space environment affects astronaut health and capabilities and developing countermeasures.” The ISS would be phased out by 2015 to provide funding for the VSE, which would evolve into Project Constellation.
A June 2004 report by a presidential commission predicted a role for the nation's international partners, but that role would be determined by U.S. self-interest:
How our international partners will participate in the vision will depend on the specifics of the architecture that will be established by the United States and the value potential partners bring to the elements of the mission. Prior to entering into government-to-government agreements, the United States must first determine its own requirements, expectations, milestones, and risks. It must also determine what part of its national industrial base it must protect and what technologies it is prepared to transfer to the international partners.
Nothing personal, comrades, but America First.
The VSE foresaw a four-year gap where NASA would rely on Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft for American crew rotations to ISS. That reliance would continue until Constellation's Orion capsule came online, and its Ares I booster.
By the time Barack Obama became President in January 2009, Orion and Ares I were years behind schedule. If and when they came online, they were intended to fly to a location that the Bush administration planned to end by 2015. Section 601 of the 2008 NASA authorization act required NASA to keep ISS operational at least through 2020, but the Obama administration inherited a plan to shut it down in 2015.
The Obama administration, in its Fiscal Year 2010 budget request, proposed cancelling Constellation to extend ISS to 2020, and funding the commercial crew program, which was on paper during the Bush administration but unfunded, to end U.S. reliance upon Russia by 2015.
In a grand compromise, Congress finally agreed to extend ISS and cancel Constellation, but NASA would have to design and build a new system, the Space Launch System. Over the next three fiscal years, Congress underfunded commercial crew, providing only 38% of what Obama requested, extending NASA's reliance on Roscosmos until the end of the decade.
Protecting pork for legacy aerospace companies was more important to Congress than ending reliance upon an increasingly disruptive foreign power.
The other significant event was the rise to power in Russia of Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 at the opening of a Russia avation and space show. Image source: Associated Press.
The former KGB intelligence officer has been President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999. Former U.S. Ambasador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in Foreign Policy in 2020:
Today, Putin has replaced Russia's fragile democracy from the 1990s with a consolidated autocracy. Over time, Putin has explicitly rejected liberalism and multilateralism and instead embraced and promoted conservative, orthodox, nationalist ideas. The clash between Putinism and liberalism takes place not only between states but within them.
Russia failed to live up to a secret agreement that required “an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999.” The Iran Nonproliferation Act, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed by President Clinton in March 2000, prohibited any U.S. agency from making any ISS-related payments to Russia unless their government demonstrated “a sustained commitment to seek out and prevent the transfer to Iran of goods, services, and technology that could make a material contribution to the development of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or of ballistic or cruise missile systems.”
In 2005, Congress exempted Soyuz crew missions from the act through 2011, but also extended the sanctions to cover assistance to Syria and North Korea. The law now has the unwieldly acronym INKSNA. Since then, Congress has routinely granted INKSNA exemptions for ISS, with the current exemption running through the end of 2025.
In 2008, Putin sent Russian forces to intervene in a civil war in the former Soviet republic Georgia. The United States protested, publicly and privately, but no sanctions were imposed. Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, wrote ten years later:
The United States is sometimes constrained in what it can do in circumstances such as the Georgian conflict. We focused our energies on stopping Moscow from overthrowing a new democracy that then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hated with a virulence that is hard to overstate. America and its allies raised $1 billion in aid for the Georgians. Sanctions levied on the separatist regions remain largely in place, so Moscow foots the bill for its adventurism in territory that is difficult to develop economically.
Using a similar pretext in 2014, Russia invaded the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donbas. This time, the United States, the European Union, and other nations imposed sanctions. Among the first Russian government officials sanctioned was Dmitri Rogozin, a deputy prime minister who had Russia's defense and space industries in his portfolio.
Fully aware that Congress had kneecapped NASA's ability to rotate its ISS crews, Rogozin threatened to terminate Russian taxi services to the station, but it was an empty threat. At the time, NASA paid Roscosmos $71 million per crew member for transportation, and a $457.9 million payment was due.
These threats are often for domestic consumption.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Image source: TASS.
Similar threats have been made since then. In April, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said on a Russian television news program that the nation was fully capable of going its own way with a new space station, leaving the ISS partnership in 2025.
That would be the year that the ISS exemption from INKSNA expires.
Unlike 2014, NASA now has its own options for rotating ISS crews. The SpaceX Dragon has been flying crews since May 2020. The Boeing Starliner's uncrewed demonstration test flight suffered multiple anomalies, but another demonstration is planned for late July, and a possible crewed test flight by the end of this year.
SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide robotic cargo deliveries to ISS, with the Sierra Space Dream Chaser planned for service in the next year or two. The SpaceX Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Dream Chaser will land on a runway, not just in the United States but possibly in other nations that contract for payload services.
An artist's concept of the Sierra Space Dream Chaser “Tenacity” currently being assembled at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: Sierra Space.
Russia needs the money, but the ISS partners soon won't need Russia any more.
The Zarya module, which provides propulsion for ISS, is owned by the United States. Russia can't decommission it.
As for Zvezda and the rest of the Russian segment, the service module suffers from leaks. Roscosmos could abandon it in place and walk away, but again that would terminate U.S. payments that keep Russian engineers employed.
The U.S. has plenty of domestic options for replacing Zvezda's capabilities and expanding the station, if it so desires. At least two American commercial companies, Axiom Space and Sierra Space, have plans to develop habitats that could be attached to ISS. The dormant Bigelow Aerospace attached its BEAM habitat to ISS in 2016.
Russia and China have announced a potential lunar exploration partnership, and are seeking international partners, but China isn't in a rush (early 2030s) and Russia doesn't have the money for such an expensive endeavour. No other nation has yet to join them, but eleven nations have signed NASA's Artemis Accords, mostly recently New Zealand and South Korea.
Putin and President Joe Biden are to meet June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. Expectations are low, and space relations are not likely to be a top priority, but the posturing has already begun.
In a June 4 phone call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Dmitri Rogozin reaffirmed Russia's support for ISS and “shared the plans to develop the Russian segment of the station.” But Rogozin also complained about the sanctions. According to the Roscosmos English-language press release:
Therewith, the head of Roscosmos stated several questions that had been initiated by the US side earlier and now are substantially hindering the cooperation. First of all this is about the sanctions introduced by the American administration against the enterprises of the Russian space industry, as well as the absence of any official information in Roscosmos from the US partners on the plans to further control and operate the ISS.
Three days later, on June 7, Rogozin once again threatened to withdraw Russia from ISS, but once again it was for domestic consumption, a Russian parliament hearing.
Will the Russians go their own way?
We may know more after the Biden-Putin summit, but history tells us that the Russians will always be at the table when cash is on it.
The question space policy wonks should be asking is, are the reasons for the American-Russian space partnership still valid?
If not, are there new reasons?
To the first question, I'd answer no.
To the second question, I'd answer yes.
It's in American self-interest to maintain a stable working relationship with Russia, as well as any other spacefaring nation.
But the U.S. should no longer put itself in the position of relying on Russia for habitat modules or crew rotations or cargo delivery services.
If NASA no longer pays Russia for space services, does Russia have the wherewithal to continue?
Russia needs China a lot more than China needs Russia. China would be a new signifcant revenue source. Russia has far more experience in space than does China but, once that institutional knowledge is transferred, China might go its own way.
Russia won't get to the Moon any time soon with China. But they will with the United States and the Artemis Accords partners.
Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: TASS.
So far, Russia has declined to participate in Project Artemis. In October 2020, Rogozin criticized Artemis, calling the Gateway space station “too U.S.-centric.”
My opinion is that the U.S. should treat Russia the way it treats its domestic commercial companies.
The idea behind “NewSpace,” which traces back to the VSE, was to create a robust commercial aerospace industry from which NASA (and the military) could purchase products off-the-shelf.
No longer would there be a single-source means of reaching space.
If Russia wants cash, if Russia wants to be treated as an equal, fine. Compete to provide services to NASA, as do SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the rest.
James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School wrote in 2019 of “an increasing disconnect” between Russia's nationalist agenda and its growing isolation from the rest of the space community.
Ironically, the very success of the Russian space industry in integrating into global supply chains in the 1990s has now made it dependent on foreign components for construction of satellites. A recent study indicated that up to 75 percent of electronic parts on certain current-generation satellites come from the United States. With the advent of Western sanctions after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia has been forced to substitute substandard and often ill-fitting Russian or other foreign components from countries that do not adhere to UN sanctions. Russia may develop renewed capabilities, but it will take time and steady budgetary support for such efforts to succeed.
Moltz also wrote that NewSpace “has created serious new challenges” for Russia in the commercial space marketplace.
Put simply, prices are dropping, especially in the launch sector, and a variety of new products are now available from commercial start-ups that Roscosmos cannot produce or cannot offer with comparable quality and price.
Partnership with Russia in space no longer serves its purpose for the United States. Putin has shown no inclination to change the nationalist direction he is taking Russia. He recently signed a law banning certain opposition leaders and groups from running for office.
Putin may calculate that he can make more money selling Russia's aerospace technology to Iran and North Korea, but neither nation has a stable leadership, and as Adam Smith wrote rational leaders want a stable global order.
In any case, it's time to take Russia out of NASA's critical path. They'll be welcome back when it's in mutual self-interest.
Much of this article draws upon a February 2001 monograph by John M. Logsdon and James R. Millar, editors, U.S. - Russian Collaboration in Human Space Flight: Assessing the Impacts. Click here to access the PDF.
Insight into the first Bush administration's space policy comes from George H.W. Bush's National Space Council Executive Secretary, Dr. Mark Albrecht, in his 2011 work, Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War. Click here to order the book on Amazon.com.