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Russia severs ties with U.S. and European space projects; ISS operating normally for now

Russia cuts space ties with U.S., Europe
Russia's space agency severs ties with the U.S. and its European partners 07:23

SpaceX put another 47 Starlink internet satellites into orbit Thursday while competitor OneWeb, which relies on Russian Soyuz rockets for the ride to space, announced it is suspending launches in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The move comes amid escalating tension between the Russian space program and the West as the nation that put the first satellite and the first human in orbit severs commercial ties, threatening the cooperation that makes the International Space Station and other commercial ventures possible.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center Thursday carrying 47 Starlink internet satellites. Competitor OneWeb announced the planned launch Friday of 36 satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket has been called off in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. William Harwood/CBS News

While the space station continues to operate in near-normal fashion for now, the Russians have terminated commercial Soyuz launch operations at the European Space Agency's launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, and cut-off sales and support for Russian rocket engines used in U.S. rockets.

"In a situation like this we can't supply the United States with our world's best rocket engines," Reuters quoted Dmitri Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, as saying. "Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don't know what."

SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted that quote on Twitter under the title "American Broomstick," reminding Rogozin that SpaceX has the capability to launch equipment and astronauts to the station from U.S. soil aboard American rockets.

Against that backdrop, OneWeb, an international consortium partially owned by the British government, had planned to launch another batch of its internet satellites Friday atop a Russian Soyuz 2.1a booster that was hauled to the pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan earlier this week.

But Rogozin threatened to cancel the launch, OneWeb's 14th atop a Soyuz, if the company did not guarantee its system would not be used for any military purposes and if the U.K. did not sell its stake in the project.

"The British authorities must withdraw from the shareholders of OneWeb to launch satellites," Rogozin tweeted. "Otherwise, there will be no launches."

On Thursday, OneWeb said in a one-sentence statement: "The Board of OneWeb has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur." Company personnel have been told to leave Baikonur and to return to their homes.

It's not yet clear what will happen to the 36 OneWeb satellites still aboard the Soyuz rocket or what boosters might be used for future launches if the conflict isn't resolved. But the cancellation of Soyuz flights, if it remains in force, would mark a major setback for a company that reorganized in the wake of bankruptcy, attracting major investments from the United Kingdom.

Along with threatening OneWeb, Rogozin and Roscosmos have ended commercial Soyuz launch operations at the ESA-Arianespace launch site in Kourou a week after suggesting the Europeans consider launching piloted Soyuz missions from there.

"After the cancellation of Soyuz launches, the European Space Agency can launch European satellites on its rockets... when they have them," Rogozin tweeted.

The Russians also have announced they will no longer service the RD-180 engines powering United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rockets and will not sell any more RD-181 engines for use in Northrop Grumman's Antares space station cargo rocket. The Antares first stage is built in Ukraine while the engines are built in Russia.

Company officials said the hardware for the final two flights in Northrop Grumman's current contract with NASA are already in the United States and those flights are expected to proceed as planned. Beyond that, Northrop Grumman may be forced to find another launch provider. The company has not yet commented.

United Launch Alliance has already taken delivery of the two dozen RD-180s needed to carry out all remaining Atlas 5 flights as the company transitions to a new, all-U.S. rocket called the Vulcan. While Russian technical support would have been appreciated, ULA CEO Tory Bruno says, it's not required.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasted off Tuesday, boosting a new GOES weather satellite into orbit for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The rocket's first stage is powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine while the Northrop Grumman Antares rockets, used to launch Cygnus space station cargo ships, are powered by RD-181 engines. The Russian space agency Roscosmos says existing Atlas 5 engines will no longer be serviced by Russian technicians and new engines will not be sold for use in U.S. rockets. ULA

But the Atlas 5 eventually will be used to launch NASA astronauts aboard Boeing Starliner capsules "without the supervision of our specialists," Rogozin tweeted. "Well, let's pray for our American friends!"

Despite Rogozin's rhetoric, joint U.S.-Russian operations continue aboard the International Space Station. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the agency's senior managers have kept a deliberately low profile and have not publicly responded to the Russian director-general. They've said only that both sides are working to maintain safe operations in space.

But relations are clearly at risk. On Wednesday, Rogozin said Roscosmos will "closely monitor the actions of our American partners and, if they continue to be hostile, we will return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station."

Former shuttle flight director and program manager Wayne Hale told the NASA Advisory Council on Tuesday the U.S. agency should consider "assembling a tiger team to prepare contingency plans" for ISS operations given the escalating tensions.

"It just seems prudent," he said. "Hopefully, it doesn't come to pass, but we've always prepared for contingencies if they were serious enough."

If they chose not to maintain the status quo, the Russians could, in theory, detach their modules from the station and chart their own course, leaving NASA to come up with the propulsion needed to keep its section of the outpost in orbit and to safely bring it down at the end of its life.

Less drastic, the Russians could attempt independent operations while still attached to the U.S. segment. Or they could simply abandon the outpost, forcing NASA to either follow suit or quickly develop supplemental propulsion.

In the near term, three Russian cosmonauts are scheduled for launch to the station aboard the Soyuz MS-21/67S ferry ship on March 18, docking at the newly attached Prichal multi-port module. On March 30, another Soyuz, MS-19/65S, is expected to return to Earth, bringing two cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei back to Earth.

Vande Hei and crewmate Pyotr Dubrov, launched on April 9, 2021, aboard a different Soyuz, will wrap up a 355-day stay in space, a new single-flight record for a NASA astronaut.

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship, seen approaching the International Space Station Feb. 21, is the first U.S. spacecraft since the space shuttle's retirement in 2011 capable of boosting the lab complex to a higher altitude. NASA

The same day Vande Hei's crew comes down, a SpaceX Crew Dragon is scheduled for launch to carry four private citizens to the space station for a 10-day commercial visit, coming home on April 9. Another Crew Dragon is set for launch six days after that, on April 15, to carry four fresh long-duration crew members to the lab. The crew they will replace plans to return to Earth on April 26.

How that sequence of flights might be affected by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is not yet known. Regardless of the rhetoric, the space station requires both space super powers to operate.

The International Space Station was first proposed by President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address. In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia joined the station project under the Clinton administration, helping design and build the largest structure ever assembled in space.

One former NASA manager, speaking after the Ukraine invasion began, called it "a deal made with the devil, with the best intentions," but there is little argument the venture has been remarkably successful to this point with astronauts and cosmonauts living aboard the complex continuously since November 2000.

One hundred and seven piloted station missions have been launched to date, including 66 Russian Soyuz crew rotation flights, 37 space shuttle assembly missions, four SpaceX Crew Dragon astronaut ferry flights, 80 unpiloted Russian Progress cargo flights and 55 U.S., European and Japanese supply ships.

The International Space Station as photographed from a Russian Soyuz crew ferry ship. Roscosmos

The station features 16 pressurized modules, including seven provided by NASA, one by ESA and two from the Japanese space agency. The Russian segment is made up of the Zarya and Zvezda modules, two docking compartments, a newly arrived lab module and the Prichal docking port.

NASA astronauts, cosmonauts and partner astronauts have carried out 246 spacewalks to date to build and maintain the outpost, logging 65 days working in the vacuum of space.

The lab now stretches 167 feet from the forward Harmony module to Russia's aft Zvezda module and 357 feet across its NASA-supplied solar power truss. With a mass of nearly a million pounds, the station provides the pressurized volume of a 747 jumbo jet. It is the largest structure ever assembled in space.

Russia provides the propellant and thrusters needed to keep the station in orbit and to eventually guide the huge lab back into the atmosphere for a safe, targeted re-entry and breakup at the end of its life. The United States provides the powerful gyro devices used to maintain the lab's orientation and supplies the lion's share of the station's electrical power.

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship launched February 19 is the first U.S. craft since the now-retired shuttle that is capable of raising the station's altitude. SpaceX Dragon capsules presumably could provide reboost capability as well, although additional launches of both spacecraft, at additional cost, would be required to make that happen. And it's not known how long it might take to implement any such plans.

In the meantime, Russian cosmonauts are not trained to operate U.S. systems and NASA astronauts cannot operate Russia's. The space station is, in the end, a truly international project that requires both superpowers, working together, to function in its current form.

"It would be very difficult for us to be operating on our own," said NASA space operations chief Kathy Lueders. "The ISS is an international partnership ... with joint dependencies."

Before the Ukraine crisis erupted, NASA, ESA Canada and Japan were aiming to extend station operations through 2030. Russia had not yet formally signed on, however, and as of now, all bets are off.

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