What economic sanctions mean for Russia's space program

The conflict could see SpaceX take over essential deliveries to the ISS.

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last week, the West has united over its condemnation of the aggression and has enacted broad economic sanctions against the nation. A financial fallout is already occurring with the ruble losing 20 percent of its value against the dollar nearly overnight, and which could fall even further as sanctions progressively excise Russia from the international monetary system. The pecuniary shockwaves created by these sanctions are likely to impact every strata of Russian society with far reaching consequences for the Roscosmos space program and the continued safe operation of the International Space Station.

These “strong sanctions,” US President Joe Biden stated at a press conference last Thursday, will impose “severe costs on the Russian economy” in an effort to “strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”

Economic sanctions are an ancient form of interstate arm twisting and have been used extensively throughout the 20th century by nations in effort to elicit specific behaviors from their neighbors. What sets this round apart is its breadth, which targets some 600 billion dollars worth of Russian assets. Russia has been cut off from the SWIFT international payment system and its central banks’ assets have been frozen in the US, EU, and UK — as have those of Putin’s upper echelon. Airports and seaports across the West are now closed to Russian commercial travel while imports of Korean “strategic items” as well as American computers, semiconductors, lasers, navigation and avionics — all vital components to Russia’s space program — have been banned.

Russia has issued retaliatory sanctions against Western companies of its own. On Wednesday, Roscosmos announced that it will not launch the next round of 36 OneWeb internet satellites that was scheduled for liftoff March 4th from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Those satellites will not get into orbit, Roscosmos officials threatened until the UK-based company meet two demands: that the UK government sell its stake in OneWeb and that the company guarantee that its satellite constellation will not be used in a military capacity. OneWeb has yet to respond publicly to the demands.

"Russia’s actions are an immediate danger to those living in Ukraine, but also pose a real threat to democracy throughout the world," US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement Thursday. "By acting decisively and in close coordination with our allies and partners, we are sending a clear message today that the United States of America will not tolerate Russia's aggression against a democratically-elected government."

Despite the economic curb stomping the Russian people are about to endure on behalf of Putin’s cartographic quarrel, NASA remains optimistic that the sanctions will not adversely impact ongoing collaborative space programs, like the running of the ISS.

The ISS has, from its start, been a joint US-Russian effort. Originally born from a foreign policy plan to improve relations between the Cold War foes after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conclusion of the Space Race, the International Space Station would not exist if not for Russia’s collaboration. Soyuz rockets helped bring ISS modules into orbit and, following the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, served as the only means of getting astronauts into orbit and back, at least until SpaceX came along. Of the station’s 16 habitable modules, six were provided by Russia and eight by the US (with the rest sent up by Japan and the European Space Agency). Jus last summer , Russia successfully launched its largest ISS component to date, the 813-cubic meter Nauka science module.

Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, himself still personally under sanctions due to the 2014 Crimea incident, voiced an alternative opinion in response to the news.

“Do you want to manage the ISS yourself,” he pointedly asked in a series of tweets Thursday. “Maybe President Biden is off topic, so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near-Earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships.“

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe,” Rogozin continued. “There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?”

The “uncontrolled deorbit” remark appears to be a direct reference to Russia’s threat to not provide one of its Progress MS cargo ships to assist in the space station’s retirement at the end of the decade. On Saturday, Roscosmos dismissed all 87 Russians working at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana and suspended launches of the Soyuz-ST rocket from there in protest of the sanctions.

“I was not surprised, based on his previous behavior,” former space station commander Terry Virts told Time of Rogozin’s outburst. “This is what I’ve come to expect.”

Rogozin’s comments come more than seven weeks after NASA announced its intent to keep the ISS operational until 2030, though the American space agency and Roscosmos are still negotiating a new "crew exchange" deal, which would see astronauts and cosmonauts sent to the ISS aboard both American and Russian rockets. Russia’s obligations to the ISS officially expire in 2024 and, even prior to the invasion of the Ukraine, Russia was rumbling about pulling out of the project by 2025.

"The Russian segment can't function without the electricity on the American side, and the American side can't function without the propulsion systems that are on the Russian side," former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman noted to CNN. "So you can't do an amicable divorce. You can't do a conscious uncoupling."

As such, “NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station,” the agency told Reuters following Rogozin’s rant. “The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation. No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”

However, Russia’s spacefaring future in the eyes of other ISS stakeholders is less clear. "I've been broadly in favor of continuing artistic and scientific collaboration," UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on the floor of the House of Commons Thursday. "But in the current circumstances, it's hard to see how even those can continue as normal."

More immediately, Roscosmos reported Monday that its public portal was under cyberassault. "A massive DDoS attack from various IP addresses has been carried out on the Roscosmos website for several days now. Its organizers may think that this affects something. I will answer: this only affects the timely awareness of space enthusiasts about Roscosmos news," Rogozin tweeted, while assuring that the safety of the ISS was not immediately at risk.

And since one cannot so much as utter the phrase “public crisis” without Elon Musk busting through a nearby wall like a mini-sub-slinging Kool-Aid man, SpaceX is of course getting shoehorned into this newfound global conflict.

On February 25th, Musk offered to have SpaceX step in and keep the ISS in orbit, should Russia refuse. The space station is currently where it is thanks to regular deliveries of propellant reactant by the Russian space agency but should those shipments stop, the ISS will be unable to counter the planet’s atmospheric drag and eventually slow into a capture orbit where it will fall to Earth. By taking over those delivery flights, SpaceX could keep the ISS aloft without the added hassle of outfitting a Falcon 9 to stand in for Russia’s undelivered deorbiting spacecraft. And even if SpaceX can’t do so, the engine attached to the uncrewed Cygnus supply ship that arrived on February 21st is powerful enough to give the ISS an orbital boost and temporary reprieve.

SpaceX is also bringing its Starlink satellite constellation into play over the contested region. On Saturday, Ukraine digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov took to Twitter requesting help from the satellite internet provider after a suspected cyberattack knocked the Viasat service offline. Less than 48 hours after Musk promised support, SpaceX delivered more than a dozen Starlink receiver dishes to the minister. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine,” Musk tweeted in response. “More terminals en route.”

Starlink has launched more than 2,000 internet-beaming cubesats into orbit to date, a fraction of the more than 40,000 the company plans to eventually launch. CNBC reports that the company has more than 145,000 active subscribers as of January.

It would be imprudent at this point to predict how Russia’s invasion will pan out, whether the imposed economic sanctions will bring a quick resolution to the conflict or slowly strangle a fading world power. We can’t fully foresee the myriad implications emerging from these monetary decisions or how they’ll impact global collaboration and space exploration in coming years. But amidst this uncertainty and chaos we can take solace in knowing that life, aboard the ISS at least, continues unabated.

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