The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our space partnership with Russia can’t go on

The International Space Station on Nov. 8. (AP)
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Homer Hickam is a former NASA engineer, an adviser to the National Space Council and the author of multiple books, including the memoir “Rocket Boys.”

Over the past two weeks, the war in Ukraine changed the politics of the world. It also changed the politics of spaceflight, but spaceflight has some catching up to do.

As relations between Washington and Moscow have fallen to their lowest ebb since the Cuban missile crisis, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has worked hard to keep everything normal aboard the International Space Station, crewed by four Americans, two Russians and one German. Given the complexity of the space outpost, the need to keep it safe for habitation and the agreements that govern its operation, Nelson’s calm approach is understandably dictated by both technical necessity and high-level diplomacy.

The Russians, however, have not reacted in the same spirit. Dmitry Rogozin, the belligerent chief of the Russian federal space agency known as Roscosmos, has made clear that he fully supports the invasion and has even made threats toward his ISS partners, including invoking nuclear war. He has also indicated he is willing to abandon the ISS, in a recent tweet expressing the hope it would crash into the United States or Europe.

In nearly every arena, the Biden administration has imposed harsh sanctions on Russia. The space station should not be immune. It’s time to end our well-intentioned partnership with Russia — even if, as seems almost certain, it would mean the early closing and decommissioning of the space station.

The realpolitik of the International Space Station is that it is not only a symbol of cooperation between us and the Russians, but it also provides a certain amount of diplomatic leverage. The fact is, Russia needs the ISS a lot more than we do.

When the space station began continuous occupancy in 2000, we wanted to learn how to build large structures in space and get experience with lengthy spaceflight. These goals have been accomplished, and now the station is approaching obsolescence, its recently planned life extension to 2030 notwithstanding. With our flourishing commercial space companies, who are already cutting metal on their own future space stations, plus our federal government’s Artemis moon program, the United States is entering a new golden age of space exploration. The Russians, meanwhile, are stuck in the past with antiquated spacecraft and nowhere to go except the ISS.

If we are truly determined to stop Putin’s brutal war, we have to use every lever we’ve got. Unhappily, that includes the space station.

The decision-making on a matter this important shouldn’t be NASA’s alone. The White House will need to direct it. A 1998 memo of understanding, which I helped to negotiate while at NASA, controls the joint operation of the ISS; it should be reviewed by the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Harris, who should then call in our partners, principally Europe, Canada and Japan, to determine whether Russia should remain aboard.

If the partners agree that Russia’s illegal war warrants exclusion, this decision will put the Russians on notice that using their ISS role to apply pressure — space blackmail, essentially — won’t work. If, as is likely, the Russians refuse to drop out, then for safety purposes we will have to continue to work with them, but there should be instructions to our astronauts to avoid any friendly optics; this is not the moment for smiling and hugging Americans and Russians in space. We should also proceed on our own to carefully and resolutely decommission the ISS.

Right now, the Russian contribution principally involves boosting the station when it needs to move into a higher, safer orbit. Recently, we performed that function with our Cygnus spacecraft. We should immediately make contingency plans to take over that responsibility, along with any others the Russians perform.

President Ronald Reagan got the ball rolling on the space station program in 1984, but it was Vice President Al Gore who kept it alive in 1993 when he directed NASA to make the Russians our partners. Although some say he did it so Russian engineers wouldn’t go to work for our adversaries, I think his primary reason was simple goodwill. When I went to Moscow in 1996 as a NASA manager to help figure out how to train space station crews, I saw firsthand the struggle of its people after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although I’m a Vietnam vet and served in the Army during the worst years of the Cold War, my heart went out to the Russian people. It was also right and proper that we should make them our partners.

And for more than two decades that partnership worked very well. Each side benefited from the other’s know-how, and many friendships have grown between American and Russian engineers and astronauts and cosmonauts. At its heart, this is the way to avoid war — to recognize each other as human beings with families who deserve to live in peace.

But now, with this reckless war by one of the major ISS partners, NASA just can’t go on as if everything is normal — because it simply isn’t.


Watch the Post Opinions short doc about a family’s ordeal to free their loved one being held hostage abroad

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)
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