The United States has for decades enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia that has often served as a powerful symbol of cooperation between the East and West in the post-Cold War era. But that cooperation could soon dissolve, and it has NASA’s new chief, Bill Nelson, concerned.
Russian officials are threatening to pull out of the International Space Station, the orbiting laboratory that the US and Russia have jointly operated for two decades, as soon as 2024 in favor of operating an independent space station. Meanwhile, Nelson and the US government want to continue the ISS program through at least 2030.
“If Russia pulls out,” Nelson put simply, “it would not be good.”
Adding to the complexity of US-Russia relations is the fact that Russia has signaled that it’s willing to cooperate closely with China on plans for deep space exploration. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this year to explore establishing a joint lunar base, while geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia and China are in deep crisis over human rights abuses, cyberattacks and a range of other issues.
NASA is also forbidden from opening up conversations with China about potential bilateral coordination because of the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 law that bans the US space agency from engaging in such discussions unless explicitly approved by the FBI or Congress.
“If Russia starts just depending on China, then, I expect we would have a whole new race to the moon with China and Russia against the US,” Nelson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane in a Thursday interview. “For decades, upwards now of 45 plus years [we’ve cooperated with] Russians in space, and I want that cooperation to continue.”
Still, Nelson said he is hopeful that a lot of talk from top Russian government officials is not reflective of the sentiment toward the United States within Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.
“I can tell you, whatever the politics is where we have a very strained relationship with Russia right now at the Putin level….I can tell you the workers, the space workers, they want to continue with the Americans,” Nelson said.
On Friday, Nelson held his first phone call with Dmitry Rogozin, who has led Roscosmos since 2018.
When reached by phone on Friday, NASA Press Secretary Jackie McGuinness said Rogozin and Nelson discussed the future of the country’s cooperation in space, but there were no firm promises made on Rogozin’s end regarding how much longer it intends to remain a partner.
According to a statement from Roscosmos, Nelson did bring up his intention to continue operating the space station through 2030, and Rogozin expressed support for Nelson as well as addressed “several questions that had been initiated by the US side earlier and now are substantially hindering the cooperation.”
The statement berated the sanctions “introduced by the American administration against the enterprises of the Russian space industry.”
Rogozin also announced “a number of [research] initiatives” for joint Russian-American corporation, and “the parties agreed to activate talks in all fields, including the face-to-face meeting format.”
In a separate statement from Nelson, he said the call was “productive” and that he looks forward to speaking with Rogozin further.
Rogozin does have a history of publicly bashing the United States, particularly US-based rocket businesses, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is a major NASA contractor and operates the only US spacecraft capable of shuttling US astronauts to and from the ISS. It was also Rogozin who told Russian state media in April that Russia would pursue operating its own space station that could launch in 2030, saying “the station must be national… if you want to do well, do it yourself.”
But Roscosmos’ actions have indicated that Russia and the US will continue to share responsibilities for keeping the ISS fully staffed and and stocked with supplies for the time being, NASA’s McGuinness said. The country has, for example, planned needed repairs for the station and is still scheduling flights for Russian cosmonauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
“Those are not signs that they’re trying to pull out,” McGuinness said.
She added that the Nelson’s call with Rogozin was intended to express that the US government now has every intention of supporting the space station through 2030, an important point to reiterate since President Donald Trump’s budget proposals consistently called for the space station to be retired by 2025.
Maintaining a strong relationship with Russia in space exploration will be key to keeping space a neutral territory. But, Nelson said, he’s still optimistic.
“Your politics can be hitting heads on Earth, while you are cooperating” in space, Nelson said.