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Russia Says It Will End Space Station Collaboration With U.S.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. and Russia have collaborated in space since before the end of the Cold War despite any political disagreements. Until now, that is, in the current tensions over Ukraine. Last month, the U.S. slapped sanctions on the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia's space program because of his role in annexing Crimea.

This week, that official said that Russia will stop working with the U.S. on the international space station in 2020. And he said Russia will end the sales of rocket engines to the U.S. if they're used for military purposes. NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel has been following the fallout between Ukraine and U.S.-Russian space cooperation. He joins us in our studios. Geoff, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Let's start with the international space station. Does this mean somebody's going to get stranded or somebody's not going to be able to get up there?

BRUMFIEL: Well, no. It doesn't mean that. It is true that the U.S. relies on Russia right now to get to and from the station. The U.S. uses - the Russians still use capsules to carry its astronauts back and forth. But that's all governed by existing agreements and also by a fair bit of hard currency.

The U.S. pays Russia about $70 million per seat. And I don't think the Russians want to give up that money. In fact, we just had Soyuz come back this week and one of the astronauts aboard was American. The Russians did go out to Kazakhstan and pick him up. So it seems that the immediate cooperation is going to be fine. The real issue here is looking down the road towards the end of the space station, which Russia said this week, they would stop participating in in 2020. And the U.S. and Europe would like to continue its operation until 2024.

SIMON: And with the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, there's no other way of getting up there right now or until the development of private companies.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that is one issue. There are some private companies that are bringing commercial-crew vehicles online. There's also another really interesting part of all this which is the Russian side of the station is actually the part that's used to boost it.

Now, the space station's in space, but it still receives some drag from the atmosphere. And if it doesn't get boosted up periodically, it would actually fall back to earth. So without the Russian side of the station, they will literally lose it. It's a little unclear how this is all going to work. I mean, there's even been some talk this week about the U.S. flying some sort of new booster up there to keep the station aloft, but that seems pretty unlikely.

SIMON: What about the rocket engines Russia says it'll stop selling the U.S...

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, these engines.

SIMON: ...And possible impacts on spy satellites, for example?

BRUMFIEL: That's right. It may surprise you to learn that U.S. spy satellites actually rely on a Russian engine to get into space. It's called the RD-180 and it's design dates back to Soviet days. I spoke to Scott Pace, who's head of George Washington University Space Policy Institute, and asked him to describe it. And here's what he said.

SCOTT PACE: It's a very reliable, very strong engine - very much a workhorse - the Russians provided at very competitive cost. And it's been a mainstay that the U.S. has been using for several years.

BRUMFIEL: And spy satellites are really finicky things. They don't like to be shaken up. And this engine apparently gives a very smooth ride, which is part of the reason we use it. Now, there - just as in the case of finding alternative ways to get people up into space, there's alternatives for getting spy satellites up.

There's a rocket called the Delta IV. A company called SpaceX would like to use its rocket called the Falcon 9. And there's a possibility that we could develop our own version of this engine, specifically. But all these options cost money.

SIMON: Has the U.S. begun to do anything to limit its cooperation in space with Russia?

BRUMFIEL: Yes. So there's a flipside to all this, which is the U.S. has taken some steps to limit its own cooperation. One of those is NASA sent out a memo in April, which said that really aside from the space station, its officials and scientists couldn't do anything with the Russians, not even send e-mails. And there's also a really big looming issue with all these sanctions. It turns out - so Russia actually launches a lot of satellites for commercial companies for other countries besides the U.S.

But many of those satellites use U.S. technology. They depend on U.S. technology. That technology in turn requires a U.S. license to launch aboard a Russian satellite. It's not entirely clear whether these sanctions will impact that licensing process. It's possible that the U.S. could just shut Russia out of basically commercial launches, which is where it gets a lot of its money. So there's really big issues in all of this.

SIMON: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.