Obama bans NASA-Russia contact

As a reprisal for what it perceives as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, with full White House approval, yesterday the US government banned contact by NASA officials with Russian government officials forthwith and until further notice. The move comes as one of a continuing series of sanctions, restrictions and exclusions imposed on Russia by the US government since elections in the Crimea found in favour of the majority of its citizens returning to Russian administration.

In a lighting strike at continuing cooperation between NASA and its Russian counterpart, the Obama administration has angered US aerospace and programme officials by potentially threatening the continued operation of the International Space Station. While not explicitly halting continued operations the possibility of a Russian response leaves open the prospect of reciprocal restrictions on US seats aboard Soyuz.

Currently, and for at least the next three years, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are the only means by which crewmembers can reach the ISS. For now, operations with the station are excluded from the restriction but the move casts a dark shadow over all other discussions with Russian partners.

It is possible, however, that by taking this action the US government could start a chain reaction at higher level involving the US State Department and the Russian Foreign Office in what could result, at worst, in a shutdown of station operations. This possibility has brought wide condemnation in the United States from employees of interested parties directly involved in ISS operations.

Clearly crafted by the State Department, the full text of the internal memo to NASA employees is 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’.

In a move aimed at delivering a strident political message, yesterday evening NASA issued a statement aimed at bolstering Congressional support for accelerated development of US commercial crew capabilities, taking a snipe at Congress which has repeatedly underfunded the required amount of money needed by the commercial crew contenders to provide autonomous US lift capability. That message reads as follows:

“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’.

David Baker,
Editor, Spaceflight

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