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
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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.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.