GOP leaders on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, including Mississippi Republican Steve Palazzo, asked NASA Thursday for information on international negotiations related to the proposed extension of the space station beyond 2020 as well as a list of all Russian equipment and services needed to operate the orbiting lab beyond then.
The U.S. already has announced plans to keep the lab up and running through at least 2024.
That came a day after Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida raised concerns on the Senate floor about potential fallout if Russia bans export of its RD-180 engines to the U.S. The engines power the Atlas V rockets used for heavy launches.
“This is a very complex issue,” Nelson said . “It affects not only our military access to space, it affects our civilian access to space.”
Reaction on Capitol Hill suggests the threats from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — which NASA has downplayed — have struck a nerve. Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s space program, made his comments following a White House decision earlier this year to impose economic sanctions on Russia and several key top officials, including Rogozin, over tensions in Ukraine.
NASA officials have repeatedly assured members of Congress in recent weeks not to panic, noting the Russian government has yet to issue a formal directive based on Rogozin’s threats.
NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. told a Senate panel earlier this month he does not expect tensions between Russia and the U.S. to hinder the cooperative agreement regarding space station operations. He described NASA’s relationship with Ruscosmos, the Russian space agency, as “steady… and firm.”
Independent analysts generally agree with Bolden, saying Russia’s withdrawal would cause relatively minimal disruption because so much of the orbiting lab’s operation and upkeep falls on an international consortium led by the United States.
A pull-out would be much worse for Russia, which views the space program as a national source of pride, said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University. He said Russia depends on its program to employ numerous engineers and desperately needs the roughly $70 million it gets each time a Soyuz rocket ferries an American astronaut to the space station.
“It’s to their benefit that they cooperate,” he said. “So if they want to take their ball and go home, they’re the ones that are inflicting harm upon themselves. Are they bluffing? Yeah they’re bluffing. They may withdraw but it wouldn’t be to their advantage.”
Russia does have one point of leverage. It could decide not to transport astronauts to the station, leaving NASA with no immediate options. The U.S. has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the space station since the last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, in 2011.
But NASA expects that at least one private aerospace firm in the U.S. will be able to carry astronauts to the station by 2017 — assuming Congress provides enough money for the program, called Commercial Crew, that is helping firms reach that target. NASA has requested $848 million for the program in fiscal 2015 and already has paid the Russians for transport to the space station through 2017.
Even a Russian ban on exports of the rocket engines wouldn’t present an immediate problem. United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has a two-year supply of the engines on hand to power the Atlas V rockets that carry its military satellites.
But Nelson worries an embargo could eventually spill over to civilian missions. That’s because the same RD-180 engines are slated for use in spacecraft that two aerospace companies — Boeing and Sierra Nevada — are proposing to use to send astronauts to the space station.
“If they are not going to sell these engines for military purposes, can we bank on it that they would sell these engines for NASA civilian purposes?” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “That is a big question mark.”
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, agrees with McCurdy that Russia has little to gain from carrying out its threats and probably won’t. But he said it marks an unsettling chapter in U.S.-Russia relations.
“The bad news is that space is being used as a political pawn in ways that it really hasn’t before,” Pace said. “Space cooperation since the end of the Cold War has actually been quite good, one of the few positive aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship. If the Russians are now threatening that, then that doesn’t bode well.”