Russia appears to have been a vexing spaceflight partner for at least a decade. During live-streamed remarks on Sunday, two former NASA officials, Jim Bridenstine and Charles Bolden, portrayed a strained relationship with the key International Space Station (ISS) partner (Aug. 28).
While current NASA officials claim that contacts with Russia over the ISS are normal, several of Russia's space collaborations have faltered or been destroyed in the aftermath of the country's continuing invasion of Ukraine. Russia has also lately performed contentious spaceflight acts, such as conducting an anti-satellite missile test in November 2021, which generated a cloud of new debris that endangered the ISS many times.
Bridenstine and Bolden both stated that they had serious disagreements with Russia during their time at the leadership of NASA. They demanded a close examination of the agency's international ties throughout the ongoing Artemis lunar exploration mission.
During a live streamed speech at Arizona State University on Monday, Bridenstine stated, "I will tell you that our nation's policy toward Russia, when it comes to spaceflight, is schizophrenic."
He oversaw NASA from April 2018 until January 2021, having been nominated late in the Trump administration. Bridenstine chastised NASA for being "overdependent" on Russia during the decade it took to build commercial crew options following the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011. NASA was forced to purchase seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until SpaceX's Crew Dragon was ready to launch passengers in May 2020.
Bridenstine stated on Sunday that Congress is making the same error with the ISS, since Russia has said that it would withdraw after 2024 to focus on establishing a Russian-owned space station. He voiced concern that NASA-funded commercial stations will not be ready in time to meet research shortages in low Earth orbit. (The agency expects the ISS cooperation to be extended until 2030, rather than 2024, to provide time for the successors to be operational.)
Bridenstine stated, "Quite frankly, Congress is to blame for any gap we have on low Earth orbit because they have been negligent in a replacement for the International Space Station." We've known for a long time that the ISS won't endure forever, but we haven't done anything to prevent the gap from occurring. That disparity appears to be widening, and no one is talking about it.
Bolden, a former space shuttle commander who led NASA from July 2009 to January 2017 during President Barack Obama's two terms, stated that, in his opinion, the Russian government was a larger concern than Congress. Bolden was an administrator during Russia's previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014 when Moscow captured Crimea. Following that, the US slapped economic penalties on leaders such as Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy prime minister at the time, who went on to command Roscosmos, the country's official space agency. In response, the fiery Rogozin famously joked that NASA could put its astronauts on trampolines instead of using the Soyuz, which was the only way for US astronauts to reach orbit in 2014.
Of the conflicts he experienced while running NASA, Bolden stated, "The space community in Russia is great, [but] it's the government." However, he and his colleagues have been focused on developing space connections with both Russia and China.
There are currently significant limits on US government collaboration with China, which is solidifying its position as a major space power. These limits were put in place for security reasons.
However, during his tenure as NASA Administrator, Bolden stated that the agency was "on the way to an incredibly cordial program with China through more low-profile channels such as the International Forum of Aviation Research." We assisted them in obtaining the [vice]-presidency of that organization, where we worked on air traffic control.
NASA is seeking to build additional foreign collaborations in the future, not just to distribute the expenses and responsibilities of the Artemis program, but also to promote responsible space exploration principles. The Artemis Accords have been signed by 21 countries so far, but Russia is not one of them.
Bolden stated that NASA took a "a big risk" by including the European Space Agency's (ESA) service module into the critical route of the Orion spacecraft, which, together with the Space Launch System rocket and the Gateway moon-orbiting space station, is a vital element of Artemis infrastructure.
Bridenstine said that ESA "has been a great partner" on the ISS, being the largest partner away from Russia and the US, and that he expected the same with Artemis. Furthermore, he stated that Artemis seeks to send men to the moon "sustainably" for extended trips, and that sharing expenses is critical to attaining that objective. Panelist Scott Pace, former executive director of the United States National Space Council, adding that Europe was also important for NASA's recently launched James Webb Space Telescope, which launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket run by the French company Arianespace.
He stated that ESA did an excellent job with that.
Whether space cooperation encourages international collaboration or is simply a lagging indication of it was also a point of dispute among those who attended the event on Sunday. However, the panel's space experts emphasized that the long-term viability of Artemis will depend on continued bipartisan support in Congress, which writes the checks for NASA and other federal agencies. Mike Gold, a former NASA administrator and space lawyer who shepherded the initial Artemis Accords to fulfillment, recounted the two prior times that fresh NASA-led crewed lunar mission attempts broke apart following Apollo, during the two Bush administrations.
Gold stated, "I believe the reasons for that are largely political, and that's why it's so amazing to see Artemis come together as an American program, not as a Republican program, not as a Democratic program." As the global program.