When the Ukraine v. Russia (winner gets Crimea) battle began, one of the first things I said was, “Man, I bet it’s super awkward in space right now.” While Russian and U.S. relations have never been great, there hasn’t been an international issue to this degree between the two countries in quite some time. But it’s not like you can beam astronauts back to the states because of an international conflict, so what’s NASA to do? Apparently, the answer is to suspend all communications with Russia including emails, video conferences or any other conversations. The exception is, of course, the International Space Station, which is currently home to three Russian astronauts, two American astronauts and one (probably incredibly uncomfortable) Japanese astronaut.

 So, to be clear, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Russian Federal Space Agency are no longer speaking to each other, but the astronauts who depend on each other and both countries to survive should totally not worry about it (which is good because they’re all dependent on Russia to get back home.)

international space station, russia, united states

This flies in the face of what NASA had originally said during a press conference where they noted the relationship had survived several international crises in the 13 years of its operation.

According to a leaked internal memo (published on The Verge): "Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine¹s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted. This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted. In addition, multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation are not precluded under the present guidance." 

Last week, NASA confirmed the internal memo with a public announcement:

“Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.  NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space.  This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.  With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.  The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It’s that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”

I find this very frustrating. As NASA noted, the ISS has been a politics-free zone for 13 years. It’s even been considered for a Nobel Peace Prize because despite political complications here on Earth, countries continue to work together to ensure that they don’t affect what’s happening in space. That station represents a hope that despite internal conflict, the human species is capable of higher thinking. While the Russia/U.S. space relationship will now exist mostly to ensure the ISS continues functioning, I have to wonder how the complete lack of communication on other topics will affect the state of the relationship.

 Now, all this being said, according to a Russian official, Russia and the US don’t collaborate on much outside of the ISS anyway, but there isn’t a huge benefit to not allowing for the possibility.