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Ukraine Invasion: End of the US-Russia space bonhomie?

The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has tweeted that the International Space Station (ISS) could fall out of orbit and crash into the US or Europe as a result of sanctions on Russia.

Ukraine Invasion: End of the US-Russia space bonhomie?
ISS has been the most politically complex (but much successful) space exploration programme ever undertaken. (Image Credit: NASA/Reuters)

By Dr Ajey Lele

The brazen action by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine has developed a sort of geostrategic flux. Lot of threats have been exchanged by both sides. The US and EU have already put stringent measures against Russia and on Putin himself. There are also talks about the needs for stopping Russia to use the principal mechanism for financing international trade. This Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is also known to be an ‘economic nuclear bomb’. Amongst all this, suddenly a new type of threat has emerged in the least unexpected domain and that is the domain of space.

The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has tweeted that the International Space Station (ISS) could fall out of orbit and crash into the US or Europe as a result of sanctions on Russia. Presently, the station’s orbit and location in space are controlled by Russian-made engines. He spoke about the possibility of the ISS entering into the phase of an uncontrolled deorbit and subsequently falling into the US or Europe. He even mentioned that the space station could even fall on China and/or the Indian region too. Obviously, he is hinting at causing intentional damage to the ISS for a political purpose. Probably, this is for the first time in history, such a direct threat has come, which speaks about purposely damaging the space assets in reaction to the warfighting on the earth. 

Such a reckless outburst of the Chief of Roscosmos happened because of the new sanctions announcement from the US, which would lead to the degradation of Russia’s aerospace industry in general and their space programme in particular. At present, there are four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut inhabiting the space station. Currently, this station is aging and Russia is not very keen to continue in this programme. On 12 April 2021, in a meeting, which was attended by Vladimir Putin, it was decided that Russia might withdraw from the ISS programme in 2025.

The end of the Cold War proved to be most beneficial for the domain of space. It brought the yesteryear advisories like the US and Russia on the same platform. ISS could be viewed as a best example in that direction. In the post-Cold War era, with the harmonization of East-West relations, the US and Russia started collaborating more on space projects. In December 1993, the states involved in the space station project (ISS) invited Russia to link with them.

The ISS is the largest artificial body in orbit. Its assembly began in November 1998. It is a multinational effort with participation of space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA). In operational terms, the ISS is a laboratory, permanent observatory and a transportation node in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). For all these years very many experiments, which require zero-gravity ambiance, have been carried out at ISS. The US space shuttle programme got over during 2010 and for more than a decade the US was depending on the Russia assistance (Soyuz spacecraft) to carry their astronauts to the ISS. Now the private agency SpaceX is also having a craft to carry the astronauts to ISS.  It could be said the ISS has been the most politically complex (but much successful) space exploration programme ever undertaken.

Remarkably, space has remained a medium for collaboration for all these years amongst the major powers. In fact, since 1960, it has been used as a medium to ease tensions in diplomatic relations. During the 1960s, US-(erstwhile) USSR cooperation began with research in areas such as space biology and medicine, and geodesy and geodynamics. Later on, during 1972, the US-USSR signed the Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, commonly known as “Civil Space Agreement.” This enabled expansion into other areas, including space science, Earth science, satellite-based search and rescue, and, later, human space flight. Specifically, cooperation in human space operations began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in the 1970s. However, the human space flight programmes of both the countries parted ways in the late 1970s, with the disbanding of the USSR. During 1993 Shuttle-Mir Programme began. This programme was about American Space Shuttles visiting the Russian space station Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir. Some 11 collaborative missions happened and the programme got over during 1998. This project is also called the ‘Phase One’ programme, while collaboration on ISS is viewed as ‘Phase Two’. Unfortunately, today Russia is threatening to disturb/destroy this ‘Phase Two’.

During 2014, the Russia-US relations plunged to an all-time low in light of Russian annexation of Crimea. This led to Russia getting removed from the G8, the group of leading industrialized nations and sanctions were put on Russia. However, all this did not impact the Russia-US relationship in outer space. Interestingly, Russia is also known to be supplying the RD-180 rocket engines to the US. These engines are required for the US to undertake Atlas-V rockets, for launching spy satellites.

Unfortunately, today Russia is threatening this space relationship, which for all these years had stood unscratched in spite of having major geopolitical differences. Let us hope that this terrestrial confrontation would not lead to destroying the orbital cooperation.    

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail.com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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First published on: 27-02-2022 at 09:39 IST