Russia-U.S. Space Relations On The Brink of Collapse?

The advancement of humanity in space is an international affair. As the next space race heats up, the governments of Russia, U.S., China, Japan, and the EU are continuing to build public space infrastructure with the aid of the private enterprise sector. Boundaries and regulatory implications continue to influence international cooperation, but countries are struggling between competition and collaboration.

Russia deployed the world’s first satellite in 1957, revealing glaring gaps in domestic and international laws, policies, and similar space governance. This led to a Russia-U.S. cooperation to create the persisting pillars of The Outer Space Treaty of 1967. After decades of growth, empirical maneuvering of policies, treaties, and associated regulatory bodies, obstacles still arise arbitrarily. While many appear necessary, these often thrust entrepreneurs into difficult situations.

On the surface, the U.S. appears to maintain its position as the world leader in space exploration and industrialization, although a deeper dive into the crucial space supply chain reveals key international dependencies. For instance, in-space propulsion used for navigation, geostationary orbits, and similar mission-critical functions have evolved from chemical to electric based systems with Russia launching its first satellite equipped with electric propulsion in 1971.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and Russian space relationship began to deteriorate during the 2010s and Russia announced plans to remove funding for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015. As of April 20th, 2021, the decision on separation has been postponed pending an inspection, but plans are still in place for Russia to leave the ISS from 2025 and an orbital launch by 2030. “ISS partners would have a really hard time keeping the station functional without Russia,” says Vitaly Egorov, an industry observer and former spokesperson for Dauria Aerospace, a Russian company.

The U.S. sanctions imposed against Russia in 2021 based on the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act) violations will have significant commercial space implications. Licensing applications for exports and re-exports of national-controlled items to Russia in support of commercial space launch activities will not be affected until September 1, 2021. However, the Secretary of State is planning an immediate case-by-case exception process for commercial and government space cooperation. The Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos lost several potential contracts for launching foreign satellites due to the news. "I am aware of several similar situations when the customers would like to use our rockets but were forced to refuse because of the mean US sanctions. This happens if the spacecraft has some components made in the USA," said Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin.

Ripples of these recent sanctions may already be appearing. In last week's blog, we indicated that the FAA notified Momentus that their application for payload review has been denied, delaying a June maiden voyage. This review is part of the FAA launch licensing process and rarely rejected at this stage, but the DOD noted national security concerns due to foreign ownership, namely Russian. The original investigation was launched as part of a March 8th merger inquiry between Momentus and Stable Road Acquisition Corporation. The timing of the situation could be coincidental, although it is certainly a calculable strategic consideration.

A foundational alliance between Russia and China militaries is unlikely. Key conflicts exist with objectives ultimately driving relational asymmetry. However, even this early affiliation should not be taken lightly. Cooperation strategies could increase U.S. military contestability respectively. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) provided an excellent analysis of The Deepening of the Russian-China Relations in August of 2020. “The most stressing scenario for U.S. defense planners is a two-theater scenario in which one power acts opportunistically to achieve a military objective, while the United States is engaged in conflict with the other.”

Decades of cooperative space infrastructure, experience, and governance are at stake, and too valuable to waste. According to CNAS, “Ultimately, U.S. policy should aim to shape Russia’s calculus such that the Kremlin views at least some collaboration with the United States and its partners as possible and preferable to over-dependence on China.” The space industry is constrained by a global entanglement of shifting economics, rules, and regulations with fluctuating implications. Lunargistics aims to streamline these persistent commercial challenges for mission-critical spacefaring voyages.

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