US-Russian tensions aren't affecting space operations at ISS
Russia and America may be at loggerheads on earth's surface, but 200 miles above the planet in the International Space Station (ISS), where cooperation means the difference between life and death, the astronauts are apparently getting along fine.
Experts say mounting political and economic tensions between the old Cold War foes are unlikely to upset cooperation in space at the moment -- something which would be damaging to both sides.
Not that talking politics is taboo aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where Americans and Russians share close quarters, orbiting at an altitude of 248 miles (400 kilometers) over the Earth.
"We could talk about anything. We'd talk about politics," said retired U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao, who commanded the ISS for six months in 2004 and 2005. "With something like this going on, I am sure the crew is talking about it, you know, in a friendly way."
American astronaut Mike Hopkins, upon returning from the ISS earlier this month after a half-year stay, said he considered his Russian counterparts "close friends" and described cooperation as "very strong."
Beyond the personal bonds forged in space, experts say the two lead nations in the 15-country collaboration have to get along because of the way the $100 billion space station was designed.
'Like divorced couple'
The Russian and U.S. sections at the ISS have their own toilets and they have separate air-conditioning systems.
But many complex operations at the football-field-sized orbiting outpost require Russian and U.S. cooperation, both in space and from control centers on the ground.
NASA mission control in Houston leads the effort, and the United States pays for the bulk of the yearly operating costs.
Howard McCurdy, an expert on space policy at American University, said it was not all marital bliss at the ISS.
"It is like a divorced couple trying to live in the same house," he said. "You can do it, it is just not very easy. They both own the house. They both operate the house."
The United States needs Russia to transport astronauts to the space station, and currently pays an average of $70.7 million per seat, according to a NASA spokesman.
The retirement of the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011 left Americans without a vehicle for ferrying crew to low-Earth orbit, and a commercial replacement is not expected to be up and running before 2017.
Reliance on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is a key reason why the United States cannot break off space ties.
If things get much worse, Putin may consider cutting off Americans from hitching a ride on the Soyuz spacecraft. In that case, NASA would likely fast-track the development of Elon Musk's SpaceX's Dragon capsule which will undergo final testing this year to make it "human rated." The capsule is set to deliver 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS late this month - its second resupply launch. The rocket that will propel Dragon into orbit, Falcon 9, is also undergoing final testing to ensure it's safe for humans.
For twenty years, the US knew it would have to abandon the aging Shuttle fleet and develop a new way to get humans into space. It wasn't until late in President Bush's second term that a plan was proposed. By 2010, the Constellation program was massively over budget and its goals had been pushed back almost a decade. The Augustine Commission ended up recommending that most of the program be cancelled., which Obama did. This put us in the position of relying on Russia to get Americans in space until 2017 at the earliest.
In the event of a Russian cut off of our access to space, NASA would probably streamline the approval process for Dragon, This would cut a year or more off its manned launch schedule thus making it possible for us to get back into space late in 2015 or early 2016. Would it be safe? NASA is asking Space X to develop abort procedures that the agency never had on any of its own rockets or capsules - namely, the ability for Dragon to cut loose from the Falcon 9 rocket on the pad and at high altitude in the event of a rocket malfunction and land safely on the ground.
Asking Space X to speed up development of these systems might make space travel more than the dicey proposition it already is. But NASA may be willing to take the risk in order to get back in the space station business.