When the White House ordered federal agencies to stop talking to Russia earlier this month, one organization got a rather large pass: NASA.
Yes, NASA will stop certain contact with Russia. Russian officials won’t be able to visit the United States, and many meetings and teleconferences will be cancelled. (Wait 'til next year, boreal forest research conferences). But a number of large ties will remain intact, despite the White House directive. Cutting them just isn’t possible when, for example, the United States is wholly dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from space. And, naturally, there is a U.S. astronaut in space right now who will eventually need to hitch a ride home.
The White House move underscores just how reliant NASA is on Russia for crucial parts of the U.S. space program. It’s a competitive-turned-cooperative relationship that dates back to – and is viewed through the lens of – the Cold War. And it’s one that is getting increased scrutiny from politicians as the United States grapples with how to handle Russia after its annexation of Crimea. Here are four points that explain the relationship between the two countries.
1.) When did Russia get involved in the U.S. space program?
President Ronald Reagan called for an international space station in his 1984 State of the Union address. The following year, the United States signed a memo that looped Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency into the plans. Russia got involved in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed that their respective space programs should cooperate. It was part of a much larger summit between the United States and Russia that redefined the security and military relationship between the two countries.
The United States soon started buying Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. A Russian cosmonaut would ride on the space shuttle, and a U.S. astronaut would live on the Russian space station. NASA also started purchasing Atlas V rocket engines – which launch spacecraft and satellites – from Russia. It was the start of beautiful friendship - or something like that.
2.) What are the main things Russia is responsible for helping with in the U.S. space program?
Transport to and from the International Space Station and Atlas V rockets. We’ll break them down (subcategories!)
A.) The International Space Station
Everyone knows how annoying it is to be dependent on someone else for a ride. Buses run late, cars break down and half the time your friends will hit you up for gas money. Well, imagine if you had to get to and from somewhere that’s 240 miles above Earth and there’s only one cab service that can get you there and back. Oh, and the fare costs tens of thousands of dollars.
That’s exactly the relationship the United States has with Russia. Except the cab is a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, the only path to the International Space Station goes through Russia, even though the United States operates the station. All U.S. astronauts must depart Earth from a Russian base. Steve Swanson was the most recent to do so, launching off to the International Space Station last month from a Russian base in Kazakhstan.
Like most things in Washington, this all comes down to money. NASA is partnering with the private sector - including the companies Orbital Sciences and Space X - to develop rockets that can send Americans to space, but those won't be able to launch astronauts until at least 2017. Both companies have made cargo deliveries to the space station.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden blasted Congress last month, writing in a blog post that it is "unacceptable" that the United States relies on Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station. Russia charges about $71 million per seat on the Soyuz. (And you thought a plane ticket was expensive.)
B.) Atlas V rocket engines
In the 1990s, the United States started buying Russian-made engines for the Atlas V rocket. The rockets help launch spacecraft and satellites. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, relations with Russia were great, and their engines were cheap.
It doesn't seem that way any more.
Russia has basically cornered the market on the engines and created an alloy mix that the United States does not know how to make, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said at a Senate hearing Wednesday. The Russians are "very, very good at" creating alloys that allow the engine to withstand certain temperatures and pressure.
"It's an extraordinary engine," Nelson said at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "We don’t know all the techniques of how they blend all those metals to have that kind of thrust," he said.
3.) The politics of NASA in D.C.
A federal agency is at the center of political skirmishes? You don't say.
For the past few years, NASA and Congress have battled over budgets, with NASA claiming each year that they were not allocated enough money. For five straight years Obama has requested that $800 million of NASA's budget go toward aerospace engineering - the types of public-private partnerships that would build equipment that could launch Americans into space from the United States. NASA has complained for years that Congress will not fully fund it, hampering research and development.
"The choice moving forward is between fully funding the President's request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians," Bolden wrote in a blog post last month. "It's that simple."
NASA released its Fiscal Year 2015 budget earlier this year. It requests $17.46 billion, about 1 percent less than it got the year before (and NASA got less than it asked for in that one).
One place NASA wants to spend more money is in commercial spaceflight - the things that will get Americans into space - and is asking to increase that budget by $150 million.
4.) How Russia's annexation of Crimea changes things
Russia's annexation of Crimea has spurred renewed interest in NASA in Washington.
The Pentagon is reviewing whether using the Russian engines has any implications for national security, The Hill reported earlier this month. It has been estimated that it could take up to 5 years and cost $1 billion, for the United States to build the engines. Lawmakers are also wondering whether the United States could be adversely affected by relying so much on Russia.
“It’s no secret that we have had some differences with Russia in the last few months,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. “And yet in at least one important area we are dependent on Russia in terms of our American national defense.”
Attitudes in Congress also seem to be changing, at least on some parts of the space program. On Wednesday, the House Space Subcommittee passed a NASA spending plan that increases funding to the Space Launch System by nearly $220 million.
"In light of recent events in Russia and Ukraine, the NASA Authorization Act reaffirms America’s need to access the International Space Station without Russian reliance," Congressman Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, said in a statement.
The Space Launch System, however, is meant to send astronauts to asteroids and deep space, not the Space Station.
So the bottom line is for the time being, the United States will still be hitching rides with Russia.