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Rift Divides U.S. And Russia About Space Station


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

The International Space Station is an enormous and expensive international collaboration. It's the product of scientific minds from the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Japan all working together. Now a key member of that partnership is threatening to pull out. Russia's deputy prime minister has said his country could stop participating by the year 2020. And the rift between Russia and the West over Ukraine is creating that tension.

For more on what this means, we turn to John Logsdon. He's the founder of and professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Dr. John Logsdon, welcome to the program.

JOHN LOGSDON: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So if Russia were to fulfill this threat, and so far, we should say they are threats, to pull out, how damaging would that be to the project?

LOGSDON: It would be a mess because even though all the astronauts on board, and it's a multinational crew all the time, are kind of cross-trained on all the equipment, if Russia was not sending up fuel, for example, for the rocket engines it would be difficult to keep the station operating.

It's important to say that Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin has said this is after 2020. Things right now are going along fine and will probably continue to go along fine for the next six years.

CORNISH: The U.S. also pays Russia to shuttle American astronauts to and from the station. If Russia were to cut off that service then what?

LOGSDON: Well, if, we would be in big trouble if they cut off that service within the next couple of years. But we are developing, through NASA's partnership with the U.S. private sector, three alternative systems for carrying U.S. astronauts to the station. And if Congress provides the adequate funding, one or more of those systems will be in operation by 2017. So a threat to not transport people after 2020 is not a very meaningful threat.

CORNISH: The U.S. pays Russia something like $70 million a seat for these rides. Isn't Russia making things difficult for itself?

LOGSDON: Yes, I think that Russia needs the hard currency that it's gaining by selling seats on the Soyuz spacecraft to the United States. It is a mutually beneficial relationship right now.

CORNISH: So even though we're talking about potential changes that are years away, this is pretty much what the future of NASA's policy was going to be, right, is based on this cooperation? I mean what has this episodes shown us about how formidable those assumptions can be?

LOGSDON: Well, I think it is a kind of warning that long-term interdependency with potential rivals is a difficult path to maintain. But the only way we're going to do large-scale things, particularly with human spaceflight in the future, is through this kind of international collaboration, which is going to have its downs as much as it has its ups.

So this, you know, sends a warning to make sure the partnership is now on a good basis. But it should not deter us from becoming partners.

CORNISH: And what are the odds that Russia might look to another partner, say, China? It's been reported that the Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, is saying that they're reaching out to China.

LOGSDON: Well, I think there's a lot of bluster behind Mr. Rogozin's comments. He's after all under personal sanction from the United States. He's probably not very happy about that. I think China is going its own way in space and it's looking for partnerships with the developing countries, not with the established space powers.

So he can threaten all sorts of things and maybe, indeed, Russia is reaching out to China. The question is whether China will reach back or not.

CORNISH: That's John Logsdon. He's founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

LOGSDON: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.