The Two-Way
4:41 pm
Mon March 10, 2014

Despite Diplomatic Tensions, U.S.-Russia Space Ties Persist

Originally published on Tue March 11, 2014 6:40 am

Update 1:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday:

A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying a U.S.-Russian crew has landed safely in Kazakhstan, according to NASA. American Mike Hopkins and Russians Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy had spent 166 days in space. Russian space officials had considered delaying the landing because of heavy snowfall and strong winds but decided to go ahead with the original plan.

Original Post:

Tonight, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryazanskiy, Oleg Kotov and NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins will return to earth from the International Space Station.

Parachutes will open, and the duo's Russian-built Soyuz capsule will touch down on the remote, frozen plains of the central Asian republic of Khazakstan.

But this March is a particularly chilly time for Hopkins to be landing: Russia's military intervention in Crimea is straining relations between the two superpowers. And, while NASA has a team in place to welcome Hopkins home, it's Russian helicopters that will be picking him up.

"We ride with the Russians," says Josh Byerly, a spokesperson at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas.

Despite the current standoff between Russia and the West over the Ukraine, Byerly is confident Hopkins will be able to hitch a ride back to civilization.

"The Russians take very good care of our crew whenever they're out there," Byerly says.

Byerly says that operations aboard the International Space Station have run smoothly throughout the crisis: "Their systems depended on ours and ours depend on theirs," he says.

NASA's dependence on the Russians runs deep. Since the U.S. retired the space shuttle in 2011, Russian rockets are the only way up. That state of affairs is likely to continue for at least a few years to come, until NASA and its partners can fly a replacement.

But Russia needs NASA too.

"The Kremlin budget people have always put pressure on their space program to bring about 20 percent or more of their operating budget from foreign sales," says James Oberg, a space analyst and former NASA official. The U.S. pays roughly $70 million dollars for every astronaut it sends up.

The Russian segment of the space station also relies on the U.S. side for some electrical power and navigation help, adds Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who closely watches the space industry.

"The Russians could in principle detach their half of the space station and swan off into the wild black yonder, but I don't think that's very likely," he says.

With the U.S. dependent on Russian transportation and the Russians dependent on the U.S. for financial help and a space station destination to go to, McDowell thinks that everything will continue to go smoothly.

"The program is really very integrated right now, it would be very hard to rip them apart in the short term," he says.

Oberg agrees: "This awkward, reluctant partnership has benefited both sides enough to put up with all the hassles."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut from the International Space Station are returning to earth tonight. Their ride is a Russian Soyuz capsule and the landing zone is in a remote part of central Asia. The Russians will pick them up and, despite current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, American Mike Hopkins has a seat on the flight home. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: After the parachutes open and the Soyuz capsule touches down on the remote frozen plains of Kazakhstan, astronaut Mike Hopkins is going to get a cold reception.

JOSH BYERLY: It is so cold that you don't even feel the cold. It's just pain.

BRUMFIEL: That's NASA spokesperson Josh Byerly who's been out there in the spring. March is not a great time to visit and this March, in particular, is problematic. Tensions over Russia's military intervention in Crimea are straining relations and it's the Russians who are supposed to giving Hopkins a ride back to civilization. Are you guys sure he's going to get picked up?

BYERLY: Yeah. I mean, we are confident. The Russians take very good care of our crew whenever they're out there. Obviously, there's a NASA landing team that is there as well.

BRUMFIEL: Does the NASA landing team have their own helicopters?

BYERLY: No. We ride with the Russians.

BRUMFIEL: NASA also rides with the Russians to the International Space Station. Russian rockets are the only way up. It's been that way since the U.S. retired the space shuttle in 2011 and it will be that way for at least a few years to come, until NASA and its partners have a replacement ready to fly. But Russia needs NASA, too. The U.S. pays $70 million for every astronaut it sends up.

James Oberg, a space analyst and former NASA official, says the Russians rely on that money.

JAMES OBERG: The Kremlin budget people have always put pressure on their space program to bring in about 20 percent or more of their operating budget from foreign sales.

BRUMFIEL: And Oberg says, without the space station, the Russian rockets have nowhere to go.

OBERG: Well, this mutual co-dependence, this awkward reluctant partnership has benefitted both sides enough to put up with all the hassles.

BRUMFIEL: So, for now at least, no matter how bad things get on Earth, Russia and America will continue to play nice in space. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.