Sen—A spectacular failure of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo ship Sunday put the U.S.-Russian relations in space to another test, revealing the good, the bad and the ugly sides in the current state of affairs between two countries.
Those who remember the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 could not help but feel a sense of deja vu at the moment when the Falcon-9 rocket disintegrated in mid-air. Fortunately, this time there were no people onboard.
Yet, then and now, a Russian Progress cargo ship was ready to pick up the slack right after NASA had lost ability to deliver crucial supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Then, and even more so now, many voices inside and outside NASA questioned the wisdom of relying on Russia for human spaceflight.
The major difference, of course, is that today, Russian engineers are themselves trying to recover from the failure that grounded their cargo ferry to the ISS. To add more drama to the latest crisis, Dragon's domestic rival—Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo freighter—is also out of service after an even more dramatic crash of its Antares rocket last year. Put together, it is an entirely unprecedented situation when three independent transport systems are plagued by problems nearly simultaneously. In the meantime in orbit, a three-member crew, including a U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut on a year-long shift, press on with the mission. NASA assured the public that the ISS inhabitants had supplies until October and that the project partners would go ahead with a planned launch of a fresh Soyuz ship on July 22, which would double the population aboard the outpost.
On the face of it, everything works as intended, with multiple systems of the project providing enough redundancy for the normal operation of the ISS even with a triple failure of its transport chain.
However there is another major difference between the post-Columbia crisis and today—the political relations between Russia and the U.S. are incomparably worse these days than they had been in 2003.
At the industry level, the Russian space agency (Rocosmos) took the high road and provided usual diplomatic niceties: "Roscosmos is in constant contact with NASA and expresses sympathy to the SpaceX company for the accident with the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo ship, which was supposed to deliver cargo to the ISS," the agency said in its official statement.
Within hours after the accident, the Flight Director of the Russian segment Vladimir Soloviev told the official TASS news agency that despite only a week left before the planned launch of the Progress M-28M spacecraft, his team would extend an offer to NASA on possible deliveries onboard Progress for the American segment.
A fully assembled Soyuz rocket with the Progress cargo ship was rolled out to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday with the liftoff scheduled for July 3. At this point in the pre-launch countdown, only minor additions or rearrangements of cargo would be possible inside the cargo section of the ship standing vertically on the launch pad below its protective payload fairing, even if NASA were to take Roscosmos up on its offer. According to NASA itself, it had no urgency in replacing the lost cargo on Dragon.
Therefore, the Russian offer was probably mainly symbolic, which probably makes it even more important.
Unfortunately, the SpaceX accident also spurred a different kind of reaction, which was all but inaudible in 2003, let alone intentionally manufactured in the Kremlin.
It came from the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the military and space industry on behalf of the Russian government. Typically for unprincipled nationalism of today's Russia, Rogozin chose an American invention, Twitter, as a stage for his nationalistic escapades and the mockery of the outside world. The day after the SpaceX accident, Rogozin tweeted that "its the very time for colleagues in the USA to think about the logic of their sanctions against Roscosmos. There is no place for politicking in space."
"Its the very time for our colleagues in the USA to think about the logic of their sanctions against Roscosmos. There is no place for politicking in space." Credit: Twitter. Click here to view the tweet and responses (in Russian).
Rogozin obviously did not apply this advice to himself, famously offering NASA astronauts to use a trampoline to go into space as soon as U.S.-Russian relations hit a new low in the wake of the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea last year.
A few of Rogozin's Twitter followers pointed out that very contradiction, however they were lonely voices in a toxic tsunami of anti-western sentiment, threats and innuendo, accompanying Rogozin's social media postings. Illustrating a dangerous boomerang effect for any government trying to ride a wave of extreme nationalism, many overzealous commentators actually blamed Rogozin for being too diplomatic!
All this virulent anti-western sentiment could be dismissed as Internet trolling, except that it is fostered by the Deputy Prime Minister, just two steps below the head of state. Combined with the overall slump in the U.S.-Russian relations, the situation could only amplify calls in the U.S. to accelerate NASA's divorce from Roscosmos.