Russian cooperation with NASA, as shown by launch on Friday of a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan carrying two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut, may look different in the future as the space power says it intends to cooperate more with China. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
ORLANDO, Fla., April 13 (UPI) -- Russia and NASA will continue to cooperate in space in the near future, even as Russia moves to work with China on lunar exploration, experts said.
Russia and China announced March 9 they will cooperate on China's planned International Scientific Lunar Station, while the United States will have no involvement in the Chinese space program under a law passed in 2011.
But ultimately, the United States and Russia have many reasons to continue cooperating in space, said Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director for the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
"Where we really see the relationship with Russia changing is with big future investments that take a lot of time to plan, like building a new space station or lunar station," Johnson said in an interview. "But I think that we can expect the status quo for the International Space Station, at least until its end of life over the next 10 years."
Russia has been vital to the U.S. program since the space shuttle was retired in 2011 because Soyuz rockets were the only way to get people into space until SpaceX's Crew Dragon took two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in May.
"It would be to the detriment of both countries for that relationship to die, maybe more so the United States," Johnson said. "Any good working relationship with a national power that we are competitive with in other areas is really beneficial."
Russia's announcement of cooperation with China's lunar plan follows statements in 2020 by Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, that the country didn't intend to sign on to NASA's Artemis Accords -- a set of agreements between nations regarding lunar exploration.
NASA intends to return people to the moon, but will miss a 2024 goal for the attempt because Congress hasn't completely funded the program.
But Johnson said the Biden administration is emphasizing a reinvigorated State Department to conduct foreign policy with Russia and others.
"From a foreign policy perspective, having NASA take a more active role in space diplomacy is something that's needed," she said.
While Russia's launch capability is robust, the country doesn't have the resources to pursue deep space exploration without help, said Pavel Luzin, an author and expert on Russian foreign policy.
"Russia wants to make an agreement with the United States of some kind, and the U.S. doesn't want to push Russia any further toward China," said Luzin, who is affiliated with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
He said some of Russia's policy is a longer-term strategy to have leverage with NASA during negotiations over costs and budgets.
Russia made more than $3 billion by selling seats on Soyuz rockets over the past 15 years, at up to $80 million per seat, Luzin said. That's more than Roscosmos' annual budget in 2020.
China and Russia have a troubled history when it comes to cooperating in space, Luzin said, starting with their joint failed Phobos-Grunt space probe to Mars in 2011. Russia launched the craft, but it failed to leave Earth orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
"And after that, China became very skeptical toward partnering with Russia for years," Luzin said. "China doesn't want to be dependent on Russia or to be dependent on anyone else in this world."
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA