The news last week that NASA was cutting off cooperation with the Russian government—with the very large exception of International Space Station (ISS) operations—attracted a lot of attention in the space industry and the general public, which continues to the present. “NASA is cutting ties with Russia. But it’s not that simple,” reads the headline of a Washington Post article today. That headline is partially correct: it’s not that simple because NASA isn’t cutting ties with Russia. In fact, the ban on cooperation is now so riddled with holes that it actually bans very little.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee on Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said there were exemptions in addition to the one for ISS operations. “On a case-by-case basis, we get an activity exempted from any prohibition” through an interagency review process, he said. Exemptions at time of the hearing, he said, cover the COSPAR meeting in Moscow in August, a Russian instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover, and three different, unnamed activities for which exemptions had been requested.
At a meeting Wednesday afternoon of the NASA Advisory Council’s space committee, NASA officials said additional activities done in cooperation with the Russians had been exempted form the ban. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that a joint activity to make mirrors for the Spektr-RG (or Spectrum-X-Gamma) mission has been exempted. NASA associate administrator of science John Grunsfeld said that the only joint activity between NASA and the Russian government in science that had not been exempted was a joint science definition team for Russia’s Venera-D mission. “We’re still asking the question,” he said of efforts to get it exempted.
So what’s left? A NASA spokesperson told Space News that a few other activities were affected by the ban, including a meeting about a Siberian earth sciences project and testing of an aircraft model in a Russian wind tunnel.
That lack of substance to the policy didn’t stop one individual from criticizing in at a Senate hearing Wednesday. “I support well targeted sanctions on Russia that will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking,” said Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute and granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, she added, “I believe that rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda.”
Those reasons, she said, include the argument that national security is enhanced by cooperation, that the ban could backfire by alienating those in Russia who are friendly to the US while strengthening hardliners, and that the safety of human spaceflight depends on trust. “It is already easier to terminate space cooperation than it is to get it started again,” she said. “We will not be able to meet our long-term goals in space without it.”