Ukraine: Nasa to curtail space links with Russia

The International Space Station will be exempt from Nasa sanctions. Picture: AP
The International Space Station will be exempt from Nasa sanctions. Picture: AP
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AMERICA’S space agency ­yesterday suspended ties with Russia in protest at the crisis in Ukraine.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) effectively ended detente with the Russians which began with the first US-Soviet handshake in space during the Apollo-Soyuz link-up almost four decades ago.

Russian’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov accused America of “childish tantrums” and said US officials should try yoga to relax.

Nasa will cut off most of its links with Russia’s space programme, though it will continue to co-operate in the operation of the International Space Station.

The laboratory, which orbits 220 miles above Earth, is currently home to three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese.

The Russians cannot operate it without Nasa, but neither can Nasa get its astronauts there without Russian transport, leaving the two in a diplomatic ­tangle over the disputed annexation of Crimea.

“We and the Russians have a very deep integrated relationship. We are reliant on them as they are on us,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Divorce is not an option.”

Nasa’s sanctions include a ban on staff travelling to Russia, a halt to visits by Russian government representatives to Nasa facilities, and an end to bilateral meetings, e-mail, teleconferences and video conferences.

Mr Ryabkov complained that Washington was over-reacting. “Obviously, the US authorities have been seriously rattled,” he said, advising that they should “spend more time outdoors, practise yoga, try a separate nutrition diet and maybe even watch a comedy series on TV rather than work themselves and others up.”

“The ship has sailed - and children’s tantrums, tears and hysterics will not help,” he added.

The shut-off by Nasa comes days after its administrator, retired Major-General Charlie Bolden, told a congressional hearing that its relationship with Russia had been unaffected by the tensions over Ukraine.

“We have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 years uninterrupted and that has been through multiple international crises,” he said.

But both countries hold powerful cards when it comes to dealing tit-for-tat blows in space.

America retired its space shuttle fleet three years ago and is at least three years away from having replacements capable of taking humans to and from the ISS, leaving it reliant on its ­Russian counterpart – Roscosmos – to act as taxi driver for its astronauts. Roscosmos charges Nasa $71 million (£43m) for each return trip.

“With the reduced level of funding approved, we’re now looking at launching from US soil in 2017,” Nasa said yesterday.

The US also depends on ­Russian engines to launch its Atlas V rockets, to haul critical payloads into orbit. The US could not replace Russia’s rockets inside five years.

Meanwhile the Russians depend on Nasa for keeping the ISS functioning. Maj-gen Bolden told Congress: “If you’re thinking the Russians will continue to operate the International Space Station (without the US), it can’t be done.”