NASA plans space station emergency game as Russian alliance sources continue

by Joey Roulette

WashingtonNASA Since late last year, the White House has quietly drawn up contingency plans for the International Space Station in light of tensions with Moscow that began to surface before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to nine people familiar with the plans.

The US space agency’s game layout shows how the US is manipulating its relationship with Russia, a primary ally in the International Space Station project, which also includes the names of companies such as Boeing, SpaceX and Northrup Grumman.

A two-decade-old alliance is in danger NASA It sought to preserve it as one of the few remaining links of civil cooperation between the two superpowers.

Plans drawn up by US officials have laid out ways to withdraw all astronauts from the station if Russia were to abruptly leave, keep it operating without critical equipment provided by the Russian space agency, and possibly dispose of the orbital laboratory years earlier than planned, according to three of the sources, who all asked not to be disclosed. about their identity.

While NASA White House officials have acknowledged that contingency plans have existed before, and have avoided discussing them publicly to avoid inflaming tensions with Russia. NASA Instead, officials emphasize their close relationship with the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

“Obviously we are very committed to continuing this relationship,” NASACathy Luders, chief of space operations, said in an interview last week. “We need to make sure, however, that we have plans. They were NASA. We always have emergencies.”

The IS It was designed over two decades ago to be technically interconnected between NASA and Roscosmos. NASA Gyroscopes provide the space station’s balance and solar arrays for electricity, and Roscosmos controls the thrust that keeps the football-field-sized laboratory in orbit.

Several space companies have been pulled into planning, one of the sources said, with Boeing, one of the station’s main private contractors, hiring a team of engineers to check ways to control the space station without Russian thrusters.

In recent weeks, NASA Two sources said he was working on a formal request to contractors for ways to de-orbit the space station earlier than planned in the event of Russia’s withdrawal from the coalition. Russia operates the station’s thrusters from Moscow, and they play a key role in guiding the station into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its life.

Last week, Russian news agencies quoted the newly appointed head of space, Yuri Borisov, as saying that the country did not have a specific date for its withdrawal from space. IS But any withdrawal will be made “in strict accordance with our obligations.” The station’s intergovernmental agreement requires any partner to provide one year’s notice of their intention to leave.

Roscosmos could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

NASA He told Reuters that the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) asked two years ago whether the US space agency could provide a spacecraft to assist in the process of de-orbiting.

NASA It declined otherwise to address specific contingency plans it was considering, but said it was “constantly looking for new capabilities on the space station and planning a smooth transition to commercially operated destinations in low Earth orbit.”

The agency is making an effort to sow the development of private space stations that can succeed in IS After its planned end date of 2030.

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NASAThe sources said contingency planning has largely focused on controlling the station without Russian thrusters.

In a demonstration in June, Northrop Grumman for the first time used a modified version of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft to alter the space station’s orbit while docked, successfully demonstrating a potential alternative to Russian thrusters.

All future Cygnus capsules will be able to do those boosts NASA A Northrop spokeswoman said. The test was part of NASA The efforts began in 2018, but accelerated amid rising tensions, the sources said.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, the private spacecraft company founded by Tesla Executive Director Two sources said Elon Musk has also been studying similar reinforcing capabilities. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule transports cargo and astronauts to and from the space station.

NASAFour US officials said contingency planning with the White House began in late 2021 as US relations with Russia deteriorated.

It also came after the Russian Defense Ministry in November tested an anti-satellite weapon by destroying an invalid satellite, creating a debris field near IS That forced the astronauts to take refuge, sources said.

However, senior officials from the two space agencies reiterated the alliance in space.

“It has been very beneficial to American science, to American technology, to American progress in our space program, and so is in the national security interest of the United States,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former US President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs. relationship on IS with Russia.

Gottemoeller, who played a key role in forming the US-Russian space station alliance in 1993, added.

The sources confirmed that the relationship is still strong between the two space agencies, and the sources said a small team of NASA Officials met their Russian counterparts in Moscow in early July to finalize a long-awaited agreement to share cosmonaut flights to ISAbility NASA Sees as a key to a spare ride to the station.

The agreement, announced on July 15, would allow Russian cosmonauts to fly aboard a US-made spacecraft in exchange for US astronauts being able to board Russian Soyuz capsules. The first Russian cosmonaut under the agreement, Anna Kekina, is scheduled to blast off aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon from Florida in September.

And the NASA It is in talks with Roscosmos, along with other station partners, including Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, to extend IS The current official end date of the alliance is another six years to 2030.

While political tensions are a major driver of contingency plans, observers of Russia’s space program also point to the financial pressures of that agency.

Last week, the head of Roscosmos Borisov cited predictions by Russian engineers of the possibility of a “avalanche” of technical problems in the IS After 2024, he said, the cost of maintaining the Russian part after that date would be “huge”. He added that it was “economically appropriate” for Russia to explore building its own space station.

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