Russia and US space cooperation: Who pays the bill?

Space has no frontiers. Its distances and resources are boundless. In actuality, space should belong to all humankind

Space has no frontiers. Its distances and resources are boundless. In actuality, space should belong to all humankind. Theoretically, space exploration should be a combined effort of all nations. At least those nations that meet the requirements in terms of economy and technology should join forces. The International Space Station (ISS) is an embodiment of international cooperation in space. The station has been operational for nearly 4.5 years. It seems a fair amount of  time to evaluate the feasibility of a space exploration project based on paid-up capital.

The economic rules of our world also apply to space exploration activities. A main shareholder calls the tune. As for the ISS, the United States is the main shareholder. The Americans foot the bill for two-thirds of the equipment and operating costs of the complex. Aside from the financial reasons, Americans use other effective means of justifying their leading role in the project. They provided technological and scientific support to develop space programs in Europe, Canada, and Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. The USA also started large-scale cooperation in space exploration with Russia in 1990s. In fact, Americans helped to keep alive the Russian manned space exploration program in times of political and economic turmoil. 

The 1998 intergovernmental agreement stipulates the leading role of the U.S.A. Americans supervise construction and operations of the complex, they are in charge of planning activity with regard to the delivery of payloads and crews, they also enforce safety standards. There are two reasons behind America’s determination to dominate the international projects. Firstly, the USA wants to control the development of high technologies. Secondly, they aim to collect of “the cream” of the world design. The presidential commission headed by Peter Oldrich, a veteran of the U.S. aerospace industry, issued a report in June 2004. The report specifically points to the above goals. In line with some of the objectives of the national space program unveiled by President Bush in January 2004, Oldrich commission was set up to consider issues relating to the purpose and technical realization of America’s future missions to the Moon and Mars. The commission called for taking “steps aimed at protecting technological leadership, economic endurance and security of the U.S.A.” As for the ways and approaches to carry out the plan, the commission recommended that “NASA should develop international cooperation on the basis of a structure that will encourage the global-scale investing of talents and technologies in order to fulfil this envisagement.”

The concrete plans of the Pentagon mirror the intentions of Bush administration to accelerate space exploration for the benefit of the national security. On March 1st, 2005, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed a directive “The National Defense Strategy.” The directive aims to “ensure that the USA has access to space so that the enemy may never use it for hostile purposes.”

Meanwhile, the future of the ISS seems to be a bigger concern to Russia than the protection of its own interests that may be jeopardized by bilateral space projects.
Russia’s contractual obligations to accommodate American astronauts on board of the Russian service module will expire in January 2006. The obligations to launch American crews into orbit by using Soyuz booster rockets will expire in April next year. Unlike the Russian service module the Americans can lease in part from the Russians, the Soyuz boosters are strictly from sale. But sale is out of the question at the moment since NASA can not purchase any space equipment from Russia pursuant to U.S. law banning strategic arms sales to Iran that came into effect in 2000. Only U.S. President can “bypass” the legislation and approve the purchase of the Russian equipment in case of an emergency deemed a clear and present danger to the ISS crew. But what shall be done if the space shuttle goes out of order after docking to the station? Academician Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Institute of Space Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, who is currently a professor with the University of Maryland, suggested that NASA lend Russia a sum of money for building two Soyuz booster rockets. But the rockets should not be operated. Instead, they should be kept on a launch pad in standby for emergency use. According to Mr. Sagdeev, if everything goes well, Russia will later find the way to use the rockets and pay back the money. NASA should urgently search for alternative methods to tackle the situation because some U.S. politicians believe that non-proliferation of strategic arms is far more important than the future of the ISS. The case of the ISS shows that interests common to all humankind failed to prevail over the national interests. The participation in a space partnership can only be justified if it proves profitable primarily to a participant.

The publication of  Oldrich report fueled discontent of the traditional American partners in the field of space exploration. A representative of the French Aerospace Agency said that European participation in the ISS project was not a positive experience and the EU governments did not wish to repeat it . According to him, Europeans do not want to play second fiddle to the USA. any more and they should have the right to effortlessly back out of a project if cooperation goes sour. German and Italian authorities also expressed their skepticism about the ISS project and the latest plans of the Bush administration.

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Author`s name Olga Savka