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5 April 2022

Putin’s war in Ukraine threatens to spark a new space race

Russia is turning its back on peaceful partnerships in the face of Western sanctions.

By Gabriel Gavin

Just four weeks after the bombs began falling on Ukraine, a shuttle carrying three Russian cosmonauts docked with the International Space Station (ISS). As the airlocks opened, the grinning crew, clad in yellow and blue jumpsuits that reminded many of the Ukrainian flag, were welcomed aboard with hugs and handshakes by the American astronauts they will now live alongside for months, orbiting some 400 kilometres above the Earth.

Back on the ground, however, their countries are locked in the most tense stand-off in recent memory. With Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic invasion having already killed thousands of innocent people and sent millions more fleeing for their lives, the sanctions imposed by the West in response have cut Moscow off in a way not seen since the height of the Cold War.

Even then, though, as the world’s two great superpowers appeared poised to press the nuclear button, they pledged to put aside their differences when it came to exploring the cosmos. In 1961, as the Cuban Missile Crisis began to unfold, President John F Kennedy wrote to the Kremlin to express his “sincere desire that in the continuing quest for knowledge of outer space our nations can work together to obtain the greatest benefit to mankind”. What followed were decades of peaceful scientific partnership between the US and Russia that seemed immune to worsening political relations.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century on from the launch of the ISS, that partnership might soon be coming to an end. On 2 April, following new restrictions on the export of “sensitive technology” to Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos space agency, claimed that Moscow was poised to pull out of the programme.

“The purpose of the sanctions… is to kill the Russian economy, plunge our people into despair and hunger, and bring our country to its knees,” he alleged, saying that “specific proposals on the conclusion of cooperation within the ISS project with the space agencies of the US, Canada, the EU and Japan will be presented in the near future.”

Russian cosmonauts Sergei Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev are seen during a welcome ceremony after arriving at the International Space Station, the first new faces in space since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photo by AP/Shutterstock

Rogozin has himself become one of the most conspiratorial anti-Western figures among Putin’s top officials, having claimed in recent days that Washington was paying Ukraine to develop “ethnic weapons” to make Russian women infertile and give citizens allergies to traditional foods. At the same time, however, he has insisted that it is his foreign counterparts who are undermining joint efforts in space with sanctions, some of which date back years, and have targeted the institute that houses the ISS control centre.

Despite past restrictions on Russia’s aerospace industry, the country has done much of the heavy lifting for international space travel. For years, its Soyuz rockets were the only option for ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts alike to the ISS because the US lacked a reliable shuttle programme of its own. However, private providers are now rushing to fill the gap, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX putting itself in prime position.

Since the start of the war, Rogozin has complained that sanctions are now making its work impossible and asking on Twitter how, without Russian support, the West could prevent the space station falling out of orbit and crashing over America or western Europe. Musk fired back with a picture of his firm’s logo. In addition, the South African-born businessman has deployed his Starlink space-based internet terminals to Ukraine, enabling people to stay online despite efforts to cut off lines of communications.

On 8 April, SpaceX will blast off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in what will be the first private mission to the ISS, carrying four astronauts up into orbit. Although the US will continue to pay Moscow for one-off shuttle launches, it appears it has less to lose by its efforts to cripple Russia’s aerospace industry through sanctions. As a result, the Kremlin is likely to have a hard time taking part in international collaborations even if it wanted to, with the flow of components and other essential equipment being choked off.

Partnerships for unmanned launches are also falling by the wayside. In 2015, the British firm OneWeb struck a deal with Roscosmos to stud the skies with a constellation of 648 probes, beaming broadband internet coverage down across the planet. Last month, however, with two thirds of its network already in place, Rogozin began demanding concessions from the company, including calling on it to sever ties with the UK government if it wanted to continue to use the Soyuz. In response, OneWeb cancelled the contract and announced it would become a SpaceX customer instead.

Its reputation as a reliable partner already in tatters, and facing being cut out of international programmes, Moscow’s space agency is clearly changing tack. In the face of sanctions, Rogozin has said that its priority will now be “creating spacecraft in the interests of both Roscosmos and Russia’s Ministry of Defence”. According to him, all future launch vehicles will have to serve that “dual purpose”, effectively threatening to turn the page on peaceful cooperation.

The risk of a new military conflict playing out in space, it seems, is rising. At the end of last year, the Kremlin ordered a test of a previously highly classified orbital weapon, designed to take out satellites and cut off communication networks. The weapon blew up an inactive old probe, scattering more than 1,500 pieces of debris and sparking fears for spacecraft, including the ISS.

The move came just weeks after Russia’s close partner, China, tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic space missile that took the world by surprise with its level of sophistication. Beijing is already working on its own space station and appears uninterested in partnerships with the West, having developed much of its own capabilities in isolation. This model is one that, by circumstance and by choice, Russia seems set to follow. Peaceful collaboration might be an early casualty of a new space race, but it may not be the only one.

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