How the Ukraine War has restarted the Space Race between Russia and the rest of the world

March 19, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

The Cold War gave birth to the Space Race, a geopolitical sprint that culminated with the U.S. landing on the moon before the Russians could. Now, 60 years after President John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech kicking off that race, the Ukraine War has rekindled global tensions beyond the stratosphere. 

In February, just after its invasion started, Russia suspended a joint mission with NASA to send a probe to Venus by 2029. And then earlier this week, European Space Agency officials canceled ExoMars, a planned project with Russia to launch a Mars rover that would seek extraterrestrial life.

The reality is that politics has played and continues to play a huge role in space. “Space is not this utopian, transformative place,” Jordan Bimm, a historian at the University of Chicago who focuses on the history of space technology and exploration, told Fortune. “Space is a place where all of our problems on Earth are reproduced or amplified.”

Russia’s isolation in space

The international community has isolated Russia since it invaded Ukraine, with economic sanctions and a withdrawal from Russia by many Western businesses. Western space agencies have followed suit, creating a painful new reality for Russia’s space agency. In recent years, that agency, Roscosmos, had become virtually dependent on partnerships with the West for financial resources to operate and expand. 

“I think Roscosmos is in for some very tough years,” David Burbach, professor of space politics and security at the U.S. Naval War College, told Fortune. 

“Given the sanctions, it’s hard to imagine the Russian government is going to be willing to invest as much in Roscosmos as current plans say they will,” said Burbach, who added that his statements and opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, the cost to the U.S. of dumping Russia’s space program is minimal. “[The U.S. doesn’t] need Russia for very much right now. They don’t have a lot to offer the world, nor do they have a thriving commercial space industry,” Burbach said.

International Space Station 

Over the past couple of decades, global space relations have been relatively amicable. The International Space Station, a research lab in orbit since 1998, had been considered a landmark in multinational collaboration and apolitical scientific research, and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

An American astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, is scheduled to return from the ISS to Earth aboard a Russian capsule later this month. After the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia, however, Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin shared a bizarre video threatening to maroon Vande Hei aboard. Afterwards, the Russians confirmed Vande Hei would be returned to Earth as planned.

The ISS is jointly operated by U.S., Russian, European, Japanese, and Canadian space agencies. It’s to be retired sometime before 2031

But Russia intends to withdraw from the ISS before 2025, plans that have been in place since before invading Ukraine, as Roscosmos intends to begin building a new space station of its own that year. 

“The ISS has been such a successful collaboration for over 20 years, it’s a shame that it’s come to this,” John Logsdon, founder and former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Fortune.

Russia-China cooperation

As its space efforts become more isolated from the West, Russia will likely deepen its relationship with China’s space industry, experts say. It would be a win-win for both countries, at least in the short term.

“Russia gets access to space for its cosmonauts through Chinese infrastructure, and in exchange, the Chinese space program gets the legacy and the deep institutional knowledge of spaceflight from the Russian side,” said University of Chicago’s Bimm.

China’s space industry, the second-biggest in terms of spending after the U.S., has grown considerably over the past few decades. Last year, the country launched its own space station to rival the ISS. It’s also working with Russia to build a lunar base that would compete against NASA’s Artemis program

But China’s political calculations are complicated. It wouldn’t want any cooperation in space with Russia to alienate the West and incur its own sanctions. 

“China has a much more robust space program than Russia. It’s Russia that needs China, not the other way around,” Logsdon said. 

He said Russia is burning its bridges with potential partners, and that China is in a powerful enough position in space that it wouldn’t come to Russia’s aid if it means damaging itself economically. 

“Russia’s actions have made it somewhat of a pariah among spacefaring nations,” Logsdon said.

From science experiments to military drills

One outcome could be Russia refocusing its space industry more on weaponization than science. The U.S. Defense Department has already outlined concerns about Russia’s military use of space, citing the “strategic threat” of jamming and cyberspace capabilities, direct energy weapons, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles.

“I think the main value that Putin sees in space these days is for military applications,” Burbach said.

Earlier this week, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia’s planned space outpost would be an “applied military station,” in light of “this hostile world” and a limited number of Russian allies. 

Experts say there’s little risk of the Ukraine conflict spilling over into space. But they note that tensions on Earth could change that equation at any moment.

“Cooperation in space has really followed, not led geopolitics,” Burbach said.

Bimm also pointed out that space exploration has always been about militarization to some extent, or at least the threat of it. The Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite, the first man-made object in Earth’s orbit in 1957, had no real military applications. But at the time, the U.S. government considered it to be a military threat, and a key reason for its own domestic expansion and militarization of space.

“[Space exploration] could easily drift back in that direction,” Bimm said.

What is clear is that space is on track to be more politicized. 

“​​I see it as a mixture of cooperation and competition,” Logsdon said. “I think a likely outcome is two space coalitions. One led by the United States, one led by China, competing over things like lunar exploration.”

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