© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The International Space Station (ISS) taken by Expedition 56 crew members from the Soyuz spacecraft after unloading, October 4, 2018. NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NASA and the White House since late last year have been quietly drawing up contingency plans for the International Space Station as tensions with Moscow begin to build before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to 9 knowledgeable about the plan.
The US space agency’s game plan shows how the US aligns its relationship with Russia, a key ally in the international space station project, which also involves big-name companies like Boeing (NYSE:), SpaceX and Northrup Grumman.
At risk is a two-decade-old alliance NASA has sought to preserve as one of the few remaining links of civil cooperation between the two superpowers.
Plans drawn up by US officials laid out ways to pull all the astronauts out of the station should Russia suddenly leave, keeping it operational without the critical hardware provided by the space agency. Russia provided and likely canceled the orbital lab years earlier than planned, according to three of the sources, all of whom requested anonymity.
While NASA and White House officials have acknowledged the existence of contingency plans before, they have avoided discussing them in public to avoid raising tensions with Russia. Instead, NASA officials emphasized the close relationship they have with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.
“It’s clear that we’re very committed to continuing this relationship,” NASA’s director of space operations Kathy Lueders said in an interview last week. “However, we need to make sure we have a plan. We are NASA. We always have backups.”
The ISS was designed more than two decades ago to be technically interdependent between NASA and Roscosmos. NASA supplies the gyroscopes to balance the space station and solar arrays to provide power, and Roscosmos controls the propulsion to keep the football field-sized lab in orbit.
Many space companies have been attracted to the plan, with Boeing, one of the station’s key private contractors, appointing a team of engineers to test ways of controlling the space station without propulsion. Russian propulsion, one of the sources said.
In recent weeks, NASA has been working to draft a formal request to contractors on how to debit the space station earlier than planned in the event that Russia withdraws from the alliance, two of the sources said. . Russia manages the station’s thrusters from Moscow, which play an important role in bringing the station into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its life.
Russian news agencies last week quoted the newly appointed head of space, Yuri Borisov, as saying the country had not set a date for its withdrawal from the ISS but that any withdrawal operations would be carried out “in the truest sense of the word.” our service.” The station’s intergovernmental agreement requires any partner to give one year’s notice of its intention to leave.
Roscosmos could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.
NASA told Reuters that Roscosmos asked two years ago if the US space agency could provide a spacecraft to assist with that rotation.
NASA declined to address the specific contingency plans it is considering, but said it is “continuously looking for new capabilities on the space station and planning for a seamless transition to the destinations it is being transported to.” commercial operations in low-Earth orbit.”
The agency is working to develop private space stations that could succeed the ISS after its expected end date in 2030.
Sources say NASA’s contingency plan is mainly focused on controlling the station without Russian propulsion.
During a protest in June, Northrop Grumman (NYSE:) used a modified version of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft for the first time to change the space station’s orbit while aloft, successfully demonstrating a potential alternative to Russian thrusters.
All future Cygnus capsules will have the ability to do those taboos if required by NASA, a Northrop spokesman said. The test is part of a NASA effort that started in 2018, but has been accelerated amid growing tensions, sources said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, the private spaceship company founded by Tesla (NASDAQ:) CEO Elon Musk, is also working on a similar reboost possibility, two of the sources said. SpaceX’s Dragon shuttle carries cargo and astronauts to and from the space station.
Four US officials said NASA’s contingency plan with the White House begins in late 2021 as US relations with Russia deteriorate.
It also comes after the Russian Defense Ministry in November tested an anti-satellite weapon by destroying a defunct satellite, creating a debris field near the ISS that forced astronauts into shelter. hidden, sources said.
However, senior officials from both space agencies have reaffirmed the alliance in space.
“It is extremely beneficial for American science, for American technology, for progress,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former national security adviser to US President Bill Clinton on Russian and Eurasian affairs. of the United States to our space program, and so it is beneficial to the national security of the United States.” on the relationship on the ISS with Russia.
“Even after this terrible and violent invasion of Ukraine, we were able to maintain it because it was in our favor as well as in the interests of the Russians,” said Goettemoeller, who played a key role in the decision. building the US-Russian space station alliance added. in 1993.
Emphasizing the still strong relationship between the two space agencies, sources say a small group of NASA officials met their Russian counterparts in Moscow in early July to finalize the sought-after agreement. long ago about sharing astronaut flights to the ISS, a capability NASA sees as key. for a backup trip to the station.
The deal announced on July 15 allows Russian cosmonauts to fly on US-made spacecraft in exchange for US astronauts being able to ride on Russian Soyuz ships. The first Russian cosmonaut under the deal, Anna Kikina, will launch aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon from Florida in September.
And NASA is in talks with Roscosmos, along with other station partners, including Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, to extend the current official end date of the ISS alliance by another six years to year 2030.
While political tension is a key driver of the contingency plans, observers of Russia’s space program also point to the agency’s financial pressure.
Last week, Roscosmos Director Borisov cited predictions by Russian engineers that an “avalanche” of technical problems could occur on the ISS after 2024 and he said the cost to maintain the Russian segment after that point will be “huge”. He added that it was “economically reasonable” for Russia to explore building its own space station.