America's space agency has always been a key player in diplomacy. NASA led the way in the space race of the 1960s, and later served as the basis for peaceful cooperation between Russia and the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. Now NASA has become the flashpoint again for tensions between the two countries — this time over the conflict in Crimea, according to an internal agency memo.
The memo directs NASA officials to stop talking to their Russian counterparts. That means no e-mail, teleconferences, or bilateral meetings of any kind. The only exception applies to the International Space Station, where astronauts must continue living with each other:
Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted. This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences.
The memo's authenticity, which was first published by SpaceRef, was later confirmed to The Washington Post by NASA spokesperson David Weaver. NASA is expected to release another public statement on the matter, but it remains unclear when that will be.
Many U.S. space missions rely directly on Russian technology. United Launch Alliance, a joint effort by aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin that boosts satellites into orbit for the Pentagon, uses Russian-made engines in the Atlas V rocket.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden was buoyant about the agency's ties with Moscow as recently as March 4, around the time things started getting messy in Ukraine. Bolden told reporters at the time that "everything is nominal now" with Russia and that "we have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies."
The memo now appears to suggest otherwise.
Update: NASA has now responded with a formal statement. In full, below:
Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.
Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.