Moscow’s willingness to part ways with the International Space Station after 2020 could point to a change in strategic direction for Russia’s space program.

The era of Russian-U.S. space cooperation, which began with the establishment of the bilateral Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, is coming to a close. Photo: NASA

This week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia would disable the ground stations of America’s GPS system situated within its territory, halt supplies to the U.S. of RD-180 rocket engines if they continue to benefit the Pentagon, and oppose keeping the International Space station (ISS) in operation after 2020.These potential steps are Moscow's response to U.S. sanctions in the field of space cooperation. To what extent, though, will steps intended to hurt Moscow’s Western partners end up damaging Russia itself?

Space navigation

Disabling the GPS ground stations in Russia will not significantly compromise the accuracy of the system, but would have political blowback. It will certainly not help Russia’s efforts to locate GLONASS ground stations on U.S. soil, or on that of America’s key partners and allies.

The potential for political damage lies in the fact that Russia will cease to be perceived as a reliable partner in the development of international space infrastructure. Despite the fact that GPS is a U.S. system of military significance, over the past two decades it has become an important component of freight and shipping operations worldwide on all modes of transport, and is becoming ever more widely used in commercial and private affairs. GPS has, in fact, become a global economic boon.

Russia’s GLONASS system, whose signal is integrated with GPS in the next generation of satellite navigators, improves the positioning accuracy for consumers and could provide global economic benefit, in the same way as Europe’s Galileo and China’s BeiDou satellite systems. Any restrictions in this area, unless called for by a state of war, would not be rational.

Even if we take into account the fact that in 2013 the Americans banned the hosting of GLONASS ground stations, the only way to proceed is to promote the system for foreign commercial consumers so that both users and manufacturers have a stake in its ground infrastructure. Ultimately, the decision to build sites for calibration stations for GLONASS satellites in North America is not the most important and immediate step in developing the system and ensuring its effective operation.

In general, Russia’s participation in establishing and maintaining the international space infrastructure both in terms of navigation and other areas, such as meteorology and geodesy, signifies greater political status on the world stage. The long-term interests of Russia and the U.S. coincide here, and the potential benefit is reciprocal and directly proportional to both sides’ constructive efforts for the good of the global economy. 

Rocket engines

Russia began supplying RD-180 rocket engines to the U.S. in the second half of the 1990s. The engines are used on the Atlas 5 carrier, developed back then primarily to serve the needs of the U.S. military.

The Americans themselves during the Congressional budget meetings of early March 2014, for purely economic reasons, raised the advisability of continuing to purchase these engines. Washington currently has a two-year supply of RD-180s, and is considering the possibility of making its own version.

Thus, the hypothetical termination of RD-180 deliveries to the U.S. will hit their Russian manufacturer, Energomash, the hardest. Located in the suburbs of Moscow, the company is a leading developer and manufacturer of liquid rocket engines. At the same time, it will play into the hands of private U.S. rocket developers, namely SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. As a result, the political and economic benefit of such a step would be zero.

Space station

The continuation or termination of the ISS after 2020 has been on the agenda for several years. Here, Moscow and Washington really do have different approaches. Russia’s position is conservative: It views participation in the ISS project as an opportunity to preserve its status as a leading space power.

The U.S., by contrast, since the mid-2000s has been using the station as a technological “testing ground” for private U.S. space companies and their commercial rocket and spacecraft projects (SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and others), as well as orbital hotels (Bigelow Aerospace).

The other participants in the ISS — the EU, Canada, and Japan — are using the station to improve their scientific, technical, and manufacturing potential.

On the whole, Russia does in fact need to develop a long-term space exploration strategy consistent with its capabilities that would overcome the inertia of the past decade in this field. This inertia is mainly associated with the ISS, since the Russian segment of the station largely copies the work of Russia’s Mir space station, which existed from 1986 to 2001.

In other words, the statement by Russia’s deputy prime minister on the fate of the ISS can be seen as a reflection of the ongoing discussions (presently behind closed doors) on the future of the country’s space program.

It is clear that the era of Russian-U.S. space cooperation, which began with the establishment of the bilateral Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, is objectively coming to a close. But Moscow and Washington would be wise not to consciously accelerate the shutdown, especially given the lack of even an approximate alternative model of interaction in the future. Even when and if such model appears, Russian-U.S. space cooperation would have a difficult time resuming its upward trajectory.

Where can Russia and the U.S. cooperate in space exploration? Can their collaboration in space mitigate the mutual tensions and distrust? Subscribe and download the full version of the RD Brief "New Cold War, New Space Race" to find out.

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