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.

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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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