RD Interview: NASA official Bob Jacobs analyzes the current scope of U.S.-Russian collaboration in space, especially with regard to partnership with Roscosmos on the International Space Station (ISS) and plans for future missions to the moon and Mars.

The Soyuz TMA-15M vehicle has been docked to the Rassvet module since it carried NASA astronaut Terry Virts, ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov to the International Space Station in Nov. 2014. Photo: NASA

Despite the overhang of Western sanctions, space exploration is one area where the U.S. continues to collaborate with Russia. Ever since its shuttle program was closed down, NASA has been relying on Roscosmos to ferry its astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station, and those plans do not figure to change until 2024 at the earliest. 

Bob JacobsBelow, Russia Direct discusses the pros and challenges of this collaboration between U.S. and Russian space agencies with Bob Jacobs, a deputy associate administrator for communications at NASA. Jacobs also shares his thoughts about potential future missions to the moon or Mars involving Russia.

Russia Direct: How do you assess the U.S.-Russia partnership in space in general today, amidst ongoing confrontation over Ukraine and the European system of international security? 

Bob Jacobs: I think that the way the International Space Station was constructed and the agreement was built shows that we all depend on each other. No one country can continue to operate the International Space Station by itself. So, we need Roscosmos just like Roscosmos needs us. 

We don't see a problem with this partnership at all; in fact, it's one of the few areas where our two nations agree – about the peaceful collaboration for the exploration of space. Right now, we have a Russian cosmonaut with an American astronaut doing a lot of research that's going to help us eventually to send humans to Mars. So, Russia is just as much a part of that exploration effort as is the United States. 

RD: Speaking more specifically, how do you estimate your collaboration with Roscosmos? 

B.J.: When we tragically lost the space shuttle Columbia, Russia stood up and took over our astronauts and delivered them to the ISS. Now the best way to send astronauts back and forth to the ISS is Soyuz. So, we are comfortable with what Roscosmos does about operating the ISS. 

RD: Have the sanctions affected your cooperation with Roscomos? How do you collaborate with Roscosmos now? 

B.J.: I can say that the safe operation of the ISS and peaceful space collaboration that we have between NASA and Roscosmos – those operations are the examples of what hasn't been influenced by sanctions. So, we don't expect that the sanctions will change operating the ISS. 

RD: Have you ever had any negotiations with China or India about deeper collaboration than you have today? 

B.J.: At the moment, NASA is forbidden by law from negotiating bilaterally, for instance, in the format of the U.S with China or NASA with the Chinese Space Agency, and discussing any type of long-term exploration plans. But the partnership, members of the ISS, can do so. 

Up to now, China hasn't shown a great interest in being a part of the ISS partnership. By the way, China has its own independent space program. They have been built on the successes of the research that both the U.S. and Russia did in the earlier days of Mercury and Gemini to demonstrate orbital docking and do space walks. And then China decided to start its own space station. Now they want to go to the moon. So, I think that Chinese space program is one of national pride and it operates independently, outside the ISS. 

RD: Do you think that the Chinese space program can compete with the NASA one? 

B.J.: Of course, we pay attention to the Chinese space program but we tend to be focused on our own exploration efforts, which are focused on the safe and effective operation of the ISS. So, we have our own space programs to deal with and don't spend a lot of time looking over our shoulders at others. 

RD: And what do you think about India’s recent endeavors in space

B.J.: We have cooperated with India. They have successfully sent a spacecraft to the moon, although I think its last effort got into problems once it got into orbit. There are many nations that are pushing the frontiers of space exploration and we are ready to help them with this when they are ready to do so. But we are also focused on helping American companies. For the first time we've got private space industry and they are dedicated to sending humans to the space station and returning American astronauts to U.S. soil. 

RD: Let's come back to Russia. Some Russian pro-government experts, not necessarily affiliated with Roscosmos, suggest that Russia stop working with the U.S. and build its own international space station with the support of the BRICS. This would be totally separate from NASA. Do you think that it's technically possible? 

B.J.: Technically, there is nothing to [prevent] Roscosmos from building a space station. But it's a decision by Roscosmos. They've been great partners as well as other nations. On the ISS, Roscosmos have been our major partner and we are going to continue this collaboration at least up to 2024.

Outside the ISS, nations have their own space programs, including Russia and the U.S. For example, we, the U.S., are going to send astronauts to Mars. If Russia has its own space plans outside the ISS, we can help Russia to achieve them. 

 Read also: What does the International Space Station have to do with Ukraine? 

RD: Some people in Russia argue that Roscosmos is facing a crisis and Russia’s space industry is generally not in the best shape, given a lot of problems with launching satellites. How would you estimate the current technical capacity of the Russian space industry? 

B.J.: We all use many similar systems and sometimes technical issues occur. For instance, Roscosmos lost the Progress. But we, in the United States, also had the SpaceX failure. But I don't think that several failures are enough to judge the capability of any nation to work on long-term space projects successfully. 

Roscosmos is going through a big transition to private companies, which Russia wants to have with government organizations under the same umbrella. When I met Igor Komarov, the new head of Roscosmos, he seemed to be focused on the successful executing of the Russian space program. 

But their difficulties with the transition to private companies are pretty much the same as ours. It just demonstrates that you never can be 95 percent sure – you must be 100 percent sure that you are right every time you have a launch. 

RD: Let’s talk about the SpaceX project. You had one unsuccessful Falcon launch. What has changed after that? How have the failure affected your plans about manned launches of Falcons? 

B.J.: The agreement that we have demonstrates that each company must meet a certain number of milestones. The accident that involved the commercial cargo flight was unfortunate and nobody wanted that to happen. But we don't think that this accident will have major impact on the development of the commercial crew capacity. 

 We are in touch with Elon Musk [the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors] and we have videoconferences with him regarding what he found out about the failure. But we've already had many more successful launches.

It was one of those unfortunate accidents which happen from time to time in the space industry. We have enough time to solve the problem and come back to SpaceX flights. 

RD: How would you see the odds of the Russian space program and, particularly, its plans to go to the moon amidst the lack of funding, the country’s tight budget and, more importantly, the sanctions? 

B.J.: I don't see any reasons why Russia couldn't do that. In fact, we can provide our assistance to Russia and a couple of other nations who are interested in exploring the moon. We know that the moon is a great target for exploration. We've had our Apollo program in the 1960s. 

In fact, we've never left the moon and we have been looking for water and other materials that can be found on the lunar surface. We are prepared to help not just all nations but also Roscosmos and commercial providers to get to the moon when they are ready. 

 Read also: It's still too early to be talking about a new US-Russian space race. 

 

But at the same time, we are focused on getting beyond the moon. We want to send our astronauts further in space than ever before. We are getting all the information that we can to send our astronauts to Mars. So, other nations are excited about the moon, we are excited for them but we are focused on Mars. 

RD: It may seem that you've already negotiated the spheres of the influence in space with Russia. You're going to Mars, you're working very closely with the European Space Agency while Russia, China and India are going to the moon. 

B.J.: All depends on the individual nation, its desires and its space program. Roscosmos is cooperating with the European Space Agency on the Mars lander. We are in the process of building the Mars 2020 robot.

I think that the international community is very interested in Mars and I think that Mars will be their next target. But a lot of these nations have to explore lower orbits.

We've already done that at the time of the Apollo program. We are still interested in exploring the lunar surface but we don't have to send our astronauts back to the moon. 

However, there is a real scientific interest in going to the moon. They [Russians] say that they are interested in it because of its natural resources. Moreover, there is a lot more water on the moon than we thought at the time of the Apollo program. Also, the moon is not as far as Mars. It will take seven months to get there and, then, seven months to come back.  

Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts are working together on the ISS, exploring how the long-term exposure to space may affect a human body and, so, we'll know how to medicate this. This knowledge can be used for the long-term exploration of the moon’s surface as well as for flights to Mars. 

RD: How do you see the partnership with Russia over the next five years?

B.J.: Certainly, I see no problem there because the original international agreement says nations are collaborating with each other on the ISS through 2024 and then we'll see where space exploration will lead us.

Now we are focused on operating the ISS, its support and collaboration on this project. In the future we are going to explore the solar system, we are interested in this type of missions. But again, Roscosmos has always been a reliable partner. 

RD: I have one more question and I think that the Russian audience is interested in it. The Malaysian Boeing crash of MH17 is on the news now all over the world because of the international discussion on its investigation. Several days after the plane had been shot down, U.S. officials said that that have some satellite images of this crash but they have never been published. Therefore, Russian experts say that those shots don't exist. Does NASA have those shots? 

B.J.: We are not aware of any satellite images. People have this mistaken idea that the ISS is able to see an entire part of the world but they don't realize how big the world is and how big space is.

At the time, the ISS wasn't flying there. Also, the ISS doesn't take pictures 24 hours a day in resolution that would allow you to see ground features like that.

People get excited about what they see in science fiction. I'm sure that if those images existed, they would have been published. We certainly don't have those images.