ISS Expedition 39 flight engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA is carried in a chair to a medical tent just minutes after he and his fellow crew members landed in their Russian Soyuz TMA-11M on May 14, 2014 near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. Photo: Gett
Show Hide image

Russia is dooming the International Space Station to spite the US for Ukraine sanctions

The International Space Station, and the US, rely on Russian space technology - a reliance that Russia is now using as geopolitical leverage.

Some time after the beginning of the current Ukraine crisis, it became clear that the US and Russia would be forced to cooperate in one area regardless of how much other diplomatic relations might deteriorate: space. The International Space Station at the time was manned by Expedition 39's three Russian and two American members, led by a Japanese astronaut.

Their mission finished and they returned to Earth today, as it happens, in one of Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Since the retirement of the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, in 2011, the US has had no way of putting humans into orbit - only Russia and China do. Historically, the International Space Station was born out of the geopolitical climate in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when history was believed to have ended and peaceful scientific cooperation between the largest and most powerful nations of the world was not only possible, but inevitable. That Nasa would have a gap between retiring one crew-carrying craft and introducing its replacement was thought to be an annoying inconvenience, but not any kind of substantial threat to its ability to carry out any missions at all.

On 4 March, Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden told a press conference that there was nothing to worry about when it came to the ISS:

I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises. I don't think it's an insignificant fact that we're starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It's not trivial. It has continued to exist and continued to function with people from a variety of cultures and beliefs, but we all are focused on the mission of the International Space Station." 

It seems Bolden was too optimistic, and not just about the ISS. Russian deputy prime minister - and head of Roscosmos, its space agency - Dmitry Rogozin has announced that the country has denied a US request to extend the ISS's mission life beyond 2020, and that there has also been a further ban on the export of Russian-made MK-33 and RD-180 motors to Boeing and Lockheed Martin because they're used in the rockets that put US military satellites into space.

Since the ISS is co-owned by those nations that built the modules, it requires the cooperation of each of them when making decisions like extending its operation life - which had happened already, as the original end date had been scheduled for 2016. While it would have possibly been a stretch, it was America's hope to convince everyone else that a further extension to 2024 was possible. However, Russia is well aware that its modules (like the Zvezda Service Module, which contains the stations' life support systems) could detach and operate as an independent station of their own, or even as the basis of a completely new station post-2020. The other modules, such as America's Destiny science laboratory, cannot.

Admittedly, the proposed use of the Russian components is quite cool - it's called OPSEK, and would effectively be an in-orbit station and workshop where spacecraft destined to explore other planets could be built, stationed and refueled - but it would represent the disintegration of what may have only been a brief period of international space cooperation. Russia has made noises about collaborating with other Asian countries on OPSEK while deliberately excluding Nasa and the European Space Agency, and that's a great shame for those of us who had hoped humanity would be exploring the cosmos hand-in-hand.

At the moment, Nasa's contract with Roscosmos for the use of seats on the Soyuz runs only until 2017, by which time there are expected to be alternatives available from the US. Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla Motors fame, had won - but subsequently lost again - a case for an injunction on the United States Air Force for its $70bn contract with a Boeing-Lockheed Martin conglomerate (called United Military Launch Alliance) for the use of Delta IV and Atlas V rockets for satellite launches. Not only did Musk argue that the contract violated US law mandating that multiple private companies should be allowed to compete for government contracts, but also that the use of Russian engines in those rockets violated the sanctions against Russia introduced in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Now that the Russian government has banned rocket engine exports to the US, it gives SpaceX an extra commercial opportunity. Not only can it propose the use of its American-made Falcon 9 rockets - which are already contracted by Nasa for ISS resupply missions - as a replacement in the most prestigious military launches, but it also gives Musk's outfit a distinct advantage over its rivals in the soon-to-open bidding process to lead development on Nasa's Commercial Crew Program. While UMLA claims to have at least two years' worth of engines stockpiled, allowing continued use of the Delta IV and Atlas V for now, it's likely Nasa will want to reduce uncertainty to a minimum. Nasa's own Space Shuttle successor, the Space Launch System, is not expected to be ready until after 2020, and is intended to be capable of journeying as far as the Moon or even Mars; conversely, the contracts Nasa will be awarding under the CCP are for craft that can deliver crews into the ISS's low orbit, and are likely to be ready by 2017.

There is the possibility that the engine ban could be lifted if, Rogozin has said, Russia was guaranteed that they wouldn't be used "in the interests of the Pentagon", but that won't reassure Nasa - and since the ISS has now become a bargaining chip in US-Russian relations, it gives us a worrying view of a return to a space race we had thought had finished long ago.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Getty
Show Hide image

The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit