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US and Russia take high road in space

Despite tensions over Ukraine, Russian ship delivers cargo to International Space Station

Space is the place to look for bright spots in the relationship between Russia and the United States, as a Russian supply shuttle brought three tons of goods Wednesday for the crew of the International Space Station (ISS).

While relations between American and Russian space officials have frayed because of the crisis in Ukraine, work together on the station remains the same, officials say.

The Russian cargo shuttle launched Wednesday morning from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and after about four spins around the Earth it docked with the ISS, delivering food, fuel and cosmic knickknacks to one Japanese astronaut, two American astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts on board.

The delivery comes amid the increasing tension between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military and political moves on the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia but still part of Ukraine in the eyes of most international officials. The diplomatic fallout has prompted the U.S. to place sanctions on Russian economic activity, and NATO has also suspended military links with the Russian Federation because of the crisis.

NASA hasn’t been immune to the brawl. An internal NASA memo leaked last week ordered officials to curtail cooperation with their Russian counterparts at Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.

“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,” the memo read.  

“NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.”

The memo goes on to vow to return to “American soil” the capacity to send humans into orbit, which the U.S. lost when it shut down its space shuttle program in 2011 after almost 30 years. NASA now relies on Russian Soyuz crafts to send its astronauts into orbit on the ISS.

NASA says it considers its relationship with Russian space officials on a “case by case basis,” with much cooperation still occurring.

“The six members of the ISS are working together and continue to work well together for the safe operation of the space station,” NASA spokesman Allard J. Buetel told Al Jazeera.

The new restrictions apply to members of the U.S. and Russian government, but not to civilian scientists using NASA equipment for research.

The U.S. will still participate in an August conference in Moscow to discuss research conducted on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, soon to enter its third year traversing the Martian surface, Buetel said.

But preliminary plans for a joint U.S.-Russia mission to Venus are on hold because of the new rules, Buetel added.

Roger Launius, a senior curator of the space history division at the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum in Washington who has written extensively about spaceflight, said strains between the U.S. and Russia are a “hiccup” and not a “return to the Cold War,” when the two countries’ rockets dueled for dominance.

Even then, Launius said, there was cooperation between American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

“Humans in space have been one of the bright and shining activities between the U.S. and Russia,” Launius said. “And they were quite effective during the Cold War, and they become even more cooperative in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“The reality is that both nations are stronger in the space world by cooperating than competing. People are loath to move beyond that,” Launius added.

But NASA says it is determined to figure out how to get humans back into space on its own. Currently, the U.S. spends about $70 million per seat on the Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft that ferries space travelers from Earth to the ISS.

“There are always Russian cosmonauts aboard. They're always the Soyuz commander,” Buetel said.  

There is also at least one Soyuz docked to the ISS at all times to act as a lifeboat should disaster strike.

The Soyuz is a one-shot deal. Once it takes passengers back to Earth, it can’t go back up again. The type of cargo shuttle that was launched Wednesday, meanwhile, takes goods up and brings trash back down — but it is designed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Buetel said NASA’s goal is to work with private U.S. space companies to design a ship — by 2017, it hopes — capable of carrying people and not just cargo.

And it had better hurry. NASA’s contract for Soyuz flights ends in 2016.

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