As the level of geopolitical confrontation between Moscow and Washington grows, is there a risk it could hamper U.S.-Russia space cooperation?

A possible venture to continue U.S.-Russia scientific collaboration in space would be the construction of a joint U.S.-Russian space station. Photo: NASA

While the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. widens on the ground, cooperation in space seems to continue despite everything. On Oct. 31 a team of three astronauts returned to Earth after spending 115 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The team included station commander Anatoly Ivanishin from the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Japan’s Takuya Onishi.

“The time is very special here… I didn’t have time to know what’s going on on our planet, and maybe it’s for the better. On the space station, you live in a very friendly, very good environment,” Ivanishin told the media.

With another joint mission scheduled to start on Nov. 17, is it too much to hope that Russia-U.S. cooperation in space remains productive? For now, signs remain positive, with some even speculating that the U.S. and Russian space programs might collaborate on a joint mission to Venus.

The history of the Space Race

Almost 60 years ago, the Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik, sparking both fear and inspiration across the world. It was not the fact that the Soviets were collecting scientific information from the satellite but the fact that they beat the United States into space. The orb traveling at 29,000 kilometers per hour was considered a threat to the United States. How could a country that was considered by most Americans technologically and scientifically inferior beat the U.S. into orbit? 

U.S. President Eisenhower addressed the Congress a few months after Sputnik decayed out of orbit stating, “Admittedly, most of us did not anticipate the psychological impact upon the world of the launching of the first earth satellite” and called for the advancement of scientific training and created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Sputnik also launched the Space Race, the competition between the Cold War rivals, which became more than just an ideological and military competition – it became the competition of technology. The Soviets put the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova.

 Read also: "Soyuz-Apollo flight reminds US, Russia of Cold War cooperation"

But the United States was determined to put the first man on the moon to show the technological prowess of the United States and attempt to beat the Soviets in an area of space exploration. On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stated: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Because of these efforts, the United States and the Soviet Union continued to build progress on their space programs, accomplishing many orbital missions and creating technologies that people around the world use today. However, the international competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is what brought us these benefits.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, making that famous leap for mankind. On Apr. 19, 1971 the Soviet Union put the first space station into orbit, Salyut 1, the precursor to the International Space Station. Then, on July 17, 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a joint test experiment combining the Apollo and Soyuz projects. The mission cumulated with the two space projects docking together and cumulated with astronaut Thomas Stafford shaking hands with cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, thereby marking the end of the Space Race.

What will the future bring us?

In this decade, there have been many areas of contention between the United States and the Russian Federation. Indeed, this year has led to significant deterioration of relations between the two countries. However, despite the suspension of the Plutonium Disposition Agreement, the two sides continue their scientific collaboration. In 2016, the Russian Soyuz mission will have completed five separate manned launches to the ISS with American astronauts.

Professor Pavel Luzin of Perm University, an expert on U.S.-Russian space activity, has expressed the necessity of continuing to advance scientific cooperation to prevent geopolitical tensions. Luzin noted that there is cooperation on launch vehicles such as the RD-180 rocket engine for the Atlas V launch vehicle and the Antares launch vehicle. However, outside of the engines and transport to the ISS, there is no sustainable or long-term project to secure scientific relations.

Unfortunately, due to the complex nature of U.S.-Russian relations, as well as the rapid evolution of space technology by both governmental organizations and private industry, there is now a significant problem regarding future scientific development. As of October, NASA indicated it has no plans to review the manned transportation contract signed with Roscosmos, set to expire in 2018.

Instead, the United States intends to rely on the Commercial Crew Program, a governmental investment in private industry to promote the utilization of commercial ventures to send astronauts into space. Eight companies received contracts to join the program and send American astronauts into space. The best known of these - and the most likely to conduct the first manned commercial launch - is Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX.

SpaceX has developed its manned capsule, the Dragon 2, which is preparing for final qualification later this year. Reports from inside SpaceX and NASA indicate an approximate date for the first manned test to be late 2018 or early 2019. The utilization of a domestic commercial space venture is also financially preferable, given that the current cost of a seat on a Russian Soyuz capsule is $490 million per seat. Therefore, without Russia selling million-dollar seats to American astronauts after 2018, where will the two space programs go?

On Oct. 11, 2016, President Barack Obama stated, “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth.” Six months earlier, on Apr. 27, President Putin initiated his longstanding goal of reviving the nation’s space program, shaking up the administration of the post-Soviet space agency Roscosmos, and setting a mission to colonize the moon. A bilateral vision exists for extended development in space, but it is essential that this desire for increased development involve both space-faring nations in a project that benefits all mankind.

A clear area of need in space is the construction of a new orbital space station, since the International Space Station is expected to be decommissioned and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the next decade. A possible venture to continue scientific collaboration in space would be the construction of a joint U.S.-Russian space station. This proposal is not farfetched. Indeed, in July 2016, the head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, stated, “Roskosmos and NASA are going to work on a project for a future orbital station. It will be an open project, and not just the current participants in the ISS will take part. It will be open to everybody who wants to join (the project).”

Despite all the geopolitical tensions here on Earth, the United States and Russia are able to cooperate in space, and the urgency towards continued cooperation is essential to maintain progress for the benefit of all mankind. In English, Sputnik (Спутник in Russian) directly translates as “traveling companion.” It is time to reenergize cooperation with America’s traveling companion.