Despite ongoing tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, NASA and Roscosmos are preparing for the next stage in their 40-year-old space collaboration.

The International Space Station remains one place where Americans and Russians can find common ground. Photo: NASA

In early April, NASA sent an internal memo to its employees announcing the suspension of its projects with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, as a response to the Ukraine crisis. Employees were told that travel to Russia, bilateral meetings, and teleconferences with their Russian counterparts would be suspended.

The only project to survive the cut was the International Space Station (ISS). Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the space industry, responded to NASA’s memo with controversial  so might even say incendiary  statements about the grim future of the relationship, warning of a discontinuation of Russian support for the ISS in 2020.

In fact, the blanket suspensions mentioned in NASA’s memo now appear to have been overstated. The suspensions were later revoked, yet the memo was enough to spark large-scale public speculation about a renewed Cold War-era space race with the Russians.

Inside NASA, however, there is little change from normal: NASA and Roscosmos have been cooperating for over forty years and have built a strong relationship between scientists, astronauts and cosmonauts. Mark Bowman, Chief Engineer of the Soyuz Branch in NASA’s Johnson Space Center Astronaut Office, says that, “Ambassadors and embassy senior staff have always marveled and told us that they wished that all levels of the U.S.-Russian government relationship could work like the NASA-Roscosmos relationship. We are tied at the hip; we talk to them all the time.”

NASA has not pursued its relationship with Roscosmos purely for altruistic reasons  it is a business partnership that began in the 1970s and was renewed in the early 90s for political reasons. Astronauts and cosmonauts met at international conferences in the 1960s and started discussing collaboration, and in 1975, the United States and Soviet Union successfully completed a collaborative mission called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Over the next four decades, NASA benefited from securing government funding from the joint projects, while Roscosmos was able to stay afloat – barely, at times  by receiving American money. The Clinton-Gore administration feared that the demise of the Soviet Union would force talented engineers and scientists with training in space technology – which could easily be used for military purposes – to go to the highest bidder.

Out of suspicion that militant regimes would recruit these scientists, the United States sought to fortify space partnership as financial aid through cooperation. The Shuttle-Mir program was the first of these renewed efforts: Between 1994 and 1998, several space shuttles docked with the Russian Mir space station and Americans lived aboard the station for extended periods. In 1998, NASA and Roscosmos began to construct the International Space Station. The Russians, under contract from NASA, supplied the first segment of the ISS, and their Soyuz launch vehicles and spacecraft are responsible for transporting NASA astronauts to and from space.

Though the Russian and American space scientists had a lot of common ground to work with, NASA has still had to learn how to work with the Russians over the past forty years on a cultural level, and has come away with key observations about what the Russians value in partnership. Age and experience, for example, are far more respected in Russian culture than American culture. The Russian engineers that NASA worked with were older and had worked on the earliest space missions, such as Sputnik and Vostok. Mark Bowman recalls, “It didn’t matter that we landed on the moon and that we’d had more manned spaceflights – they put the first man in space, built the first space station, and had the most experience with long-duration flights. For that reason, the Russians considered us to be the new kids on the block.”

It took years for NASA scientists to earn the respect of the older Russians in the space program, but the biggest challenge was to understand the customer-provider relationship. The fact that NASA was paying Roscosmos for its services did not put them in a superior position, and according to Mark Bowman, “Until we understood that just because you’re bringing the money doesn’t put you in the driver’s seat, we weren’t able to cooperate as effectively. It took a long time for them to realize that he who writes the checkbook makes the rules. They still haven’t fully understood that.”

At the end of April, NASA extended its contract with Roscosmos to service the ISS through 2017.

 Because the agency’s budget as a percentage of the government’s discretionary spending is 0.4 percent, down from a peak of 4 percent during the Apollo program during the space race, it is not enough to cease contact with the Russians for ongoing projects.

 The possibility of a renewed U.S.-Russia space race is not remotely possible with NASA’s current budget, and though the Roscosmos budget is increasing, it is not enough to warrant any kind of competition.

If U.S.-Russian cooperation on the ISS does not continue after 2020, NASA will have to secure funding for its continuation. NASA is pursuing a more independent space program through the Orion project, which will take astronauts to deep space in collaboration with the European Space Agency. Orion’s first manned mission is scheduled for 2017, with an unpiloted test flight in December 2014.

Whether or not the partnership with Russia continues, NASA employees can give strong recommendations about how to work with Russians within a larger government framework. The agency’s employees are still among the only Americans assigned to Moscow that do not live or work on the Embassy compound, allowing them to engage more with Russians on a daily basis. Astronauts and space scientists study and speak Russian, and mission control communication from Houston to Moscow is entirely in Russian. The nearly forty years of sustained effort towards close cooperation show that it is still possible to build and maintain positive working relationships on a technical level, despite larger foreign policy challenges.

In contrast to his earlier, inflammatory statements that America should “try using trampolines to send their astronauts into space,” Rogozin seems to be taking a much more conciliatory approach in recent months. Many specialists in the Russian space program have expressed their strong desire to continue utilization of the ISS past 2020.

Ultimately, budget and logistical issues could lead to closer U.S.-Russian collaboration in space. Most notably, the major technical difficulties with the new Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) and resulting launch delays for the MLM and a new Russian “node” docking port – likely well into 2018 – would make terminating the ISS program in 2020 a colossal waste of Russian investment after only two years of expanded science utilization capability.