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How will the Russian invasion impact U.S.-Russia cooperation in space?

The International Space Station
Courtesy: NASA
The International Space Station

The U.S. and Russia have a long history of cooperation in space, and the International Space Station is the most recent example. But now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cast some doubt on the future of U.S. agreements with the Russians.

Dr. Chris Combs is a Dee Howard faculty fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is also an expert on ISS operations. He spoke with TPR’s Jerry Clayton.

CLAYTON: Talk to me about the history of the Russians involvement in the International Space Station.

COMBS: Well, it's a very collaborative thing, which is part of what's been so neat about the International Space Station. It is an international cooperation, right? There are Russian manufactured segments there, and the United States manufactured segments.

These segments are codependent on one another. There's capability to dock with Russian and U.S. launch vehicles. Currently, they are both docked to the space station and then there have consistently been Russian and U.S. crew aboard the station, which is also the case now. And we have had Russians launch on U.S. vehicles and U.S. astronauts launch on Russian vehicles. So, there's been a lot of cooperation in all aspects of the station. It very much is a really unique and admirable technological agreement that we've come to with the Russians in this regard.

CLAYTON: With the current situation, how worried are you that this cooperation could collapse?

COMBS: I don't think I'm particularly worried, and there's a few reasons for that. One is that when you look at the space station, all of these different segments are very codependent on one another, and they're relying on one another. It would not be possible for the Russians to just remove their components or just turn off their side of the space station, for example, without dooming the entire system and bringing down their astronauts or cosmonauts with it. You know, that just wouldn't make a lot of sense to just doom the entire enterprise.

So right now, we have two Russian cosmonauts, two U.S. astronauts and one German astronaut that are all on board the International Space Station. And they're there together for months now, and they are professionals [and] colleagues. They've been working together in close quarters, and they're scientists. So, I think it's really hard for me to imagine, even if some kind of crazy order came down, that they would even follow that.

CLAYTON: How could the degradation of the relationship between the United States and Russia affect the space industry as a whole?

COMBS: Yeah, I mean, I think it's going to be something to keep an eye on. Thankfully, the U.S. has recently developed their own independent capability to get astronauts to and from space, which we had a gap for a while after the space shuttle program was discontinued.

We've got Crew Dragon, we've got other capabilities that are coming online, hopefully soon. You know, if you watch Boeing's Starliner, for example, this international cooperation that we've had with Cygnus launches — there's some sort of international interconnectedness there.

For the Cygnus resupply vehicle, the first stage of that rocket is manufactured in Ukraine. So, you see some stuff like that. And while there's some work around it, there might be some complications.

You know, the space industry, while we've seen a lot of the start ups take off, especially in the U.S. and we've seen a lot of new commercial capability in the U.S., it's still very interconnected and we have been relying on it for a long time. So, it'll be interesting to track and see the ripple effects of what's going on with some relationships that now are probably going to be fractured.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.