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Summary:

The move comes after heightening tension between the U.S. and Russia over the country’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine. Astronauts on the International Space Station will still work together.

Astronaut Mark Lee floating untethered in space
photo: NASA

Due to escalating tension over Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, NASA has cut off contact with the Russian Federal Space Agency. The order does not extend to Americans on the International Space Station, who will continue to cooperate with Russian astronauts.

The news went out to NASA employees in a memo first reported by The Verge. Space Ref has posted the entirety of the memo, which reads:

“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. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted. In addition, multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation are not precluded under the present guidance.”

NASA posted a statement on Google+ late Wednesday afternoon confirming the memo:

“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.”

Since closing its shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry its crew members to the ISS. It currently pays Russia $70.7 million per astronaut. It last sent a U.S. crew member up on Russia’s Soyuz rocket on March 25 amid already tense international relations. ISS astronauts work together daily on maintenance and other missions, and the countries involved pay each other to use equipment located outside their portion of the ISS.

The expedition 38 crew aboard the International Space Station. Clockwise from top center: Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The expedition 38 crew aboard the International Space Station. Clockwise from top center: Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin. Photo courtesy of NASA.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in March that tensions over Crimea would not halt NASA-Russia relations on the ISS. He said that Russia relies on the U.S. to operate essential parts of the space station, so cutting U.S. astronauts off from it would cause the entire station to essentially shut down. He described Russia as “equally worried” about the U.S. stopping its work on the ISS.

Bolden also noted in a post last week that NASA is close to independence from Russia. NASA is providing funding to private companies Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX to build shuttles that will potentially carry the agency’s crews into space. Though Bolden noted that funding cuts mean the shuttles will not launch next year as originally hoped, it is expected that they will be ready in three years. SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences, already contracts with NASA to send unmanned cargo ships to the ISS.

The Soyuz TMA-12M rocket launches in Kazakhstan on March 26 with the Expedition 39 crew on board, including Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov, NASA Flight Engineer Steven Swanson, and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev. Photo courtesy of Bill Ingalls/NASA.

The Soyuz TMA-12M rocket launches in Kazakhstan on March 26 with the Expedition 39 crew on board, including Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov, NASA Flight Engineer Steven Swanson, and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev. Photo courtesy of Bill Ingalls/NASA.

The NASA post on Google+ echoed Bolden:

“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.”

Tension between Russian and the U.S. began mounting when Russia invaded the Crimea region in late February. In March, Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and asked to join Russia. Russia has repeatedly ignored warnings from President Barack Obama and has now amassed troops on Ukraine’s border.

  1. Question is, why “Russia” is an aggressor, when not one shot was fired. I have many examples where the U.S. did fire shots. And sure, they are always the good guys.
    Second question is, who the “sanctions” hurt. In this case, the U.S. benefited from the Russian road to the stars, where the U.S. ended their own. If I may predict a Russian reaction? No more Astronauts welcome on their rockets… Whoooops.

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  2. I also disagree with the characterization of Russia as some aggressor. I am American and it is no secret Western countries were involved in supporting various factions in Ukraine for their own self-interests, including energy. Russia acted rightly in supporting the democratic self-determination of Crimea, which has always been a traditional part of Russia. It is time for Western political leaders to remember the Cold War is over and that we need to treat Russia as a partner, not an enemy! That will benefit both East and West.

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