- - Sunday, July 20, 2014

Moscow wants to work with Washington to further space exploration despite a recent NASA memo noting the crisis in Ukraine has nearly severed prospects for partnership, Russian officials say.

In an April 2 memo, NASA suspended “contact with Russian entities” as a result of “the ongoing violation of Ukraine sovereignty.” A follow-up statement stressed that “NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.” But it added that “NASA is laser focused on a plan to end our reliance on Russia to get into space.”

“The memo was unexpected. We did not expect what was happening politically between Russia and the United States to affect what happens in space,” Russian Federation spokesman Yevgeniy Khorishko told The Washington Times. “Politics should not overshadow this partnership when there are this many years of cooperation. We have good assets and experience to do this job together. It is natural for us to continue.”

Since its space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) via Soyuz rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, others, such as the European Space Agency, have been developing their own means for putting people into orbit.

Washington’s already-strained relations with Moscow reached the breaking point earlier this year when pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine sought to break away from Kiev’s government. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and has massed troops on the border with its smaller neighbor. Western nations have accused Moscow of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and supporting rebels battling Ukrainian forces — charges that Russian officials deny.

In response to NASA’s memo, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin publicly accused Washington of sending mixed messages, tweeting, “Yet, apart from the ISS, we didn’t cooperate with NASA anyway.”

Russia also boosted its space agency’s budget by $52 billion and announced it was declining a NASA proposal to extend the ISS beyond 2020. According to The Moscow Times, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, would “be looking to other projects and partners.”

But Russian officials told The Times that NASA’s memo has not hurt “long-standing cooperative efforts” between the two countries and that they believe the U.S. and Russia need one another to conquer the final frontier.

“I have noticed some changes in who is participating at conferences, but for the most part it has not really affected any of the ongoing joint programs,” said Alexander Trofimov, who specializes in scientific and military affairs at the Russian Embassy in Washington.

Mr. Trofimov said “many technologies developed by both Russia and the U.S. are used by one another,” such as space-based satellite navigation systems and rocket building. He also noted the unprecedented cooperation that allowed 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz project, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft.

“If it were not for that joint effort, we may not have the Soyuz rockets that are taking both Russian and American astronauts to the ISS today,” Mr. Khorishko said.

Washington and Moscow have cooperated on space exploration since 1993, when they merged the Russian space station Mir and the U.S. station Freedom to create the International Space Station.

U.S.-based satellite launch companies who spoke to The Times only on the condition of anonymity said that the continued use of Russian cosmodromes is vital.

NASA declined to comment and referred to a statement it released in May: “Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations. We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a legal analyst for The Washington Times.

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