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Leaders of five space agencies—NASA, ESA, CSA, JAXA and ISRO—participate in a panel at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris September 18. Officials from China and Russia, previously announced to also be on the panel, were absent. (credit: IAF)

Space for (mostly) all

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The theme of last week’s International Astronautical Congress (IAC) was “Space for All”, or, as written, “Space for @ll”, the at-sign an apparent nod to a digital component that was largely absent at a conference that required one to be there in person to see all of the major sessions. But plenty of people did show up in person: when the IAC closed on Thursday, the International Astronautical Federation said more than 9,300 people registered—a record—from 110 countries.

As is often the case, though, what gets noticed is not who shows up but who does not. In the case of this year’s IAC in Paris, it was two major spacefaring nations that had little or no official presence at the largest conference of its kind: China and Russia.

“Despite the political troubles on terra firma,” Nelson said, “you still see that professional relationship working in the civilian space arena.”

Russia’s absence is understandable given its invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions by the West. Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos, had already been sanctioned for his role as deputy prime minister in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and did not attend either the 2018 IAC in Germany or the 2019 IAC in the United States. He did, though, attend last year’s IAC in Dubai, and Roscosmos had a major presence in the exhibit hall, something that was lacking in Paris last week.

Civil space, particularly the ISS, is one of the few places where Russia still cooperates with the West, even if that cooperation is difficult at times. “This didn’t start just yesterday,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said of cooperation with Russia in space during a heads-of-agencies panel at IAC September 18 that included him and the heads of other Western ISS partners—the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency—but neither Russia nor China. (India’s space agency ISRO was the only other agency on the panel.)

Nelson repeated comments he’s delivered many times over the last seven months about how ties between the US and Russia in space date back to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project nearly 50 years ago. “Despite the political troubles on terra firma,” Nelson said, “you still see that professional relationship working in the civilian space arena.”

At a press conference immediately after the panel, Nelson revealed that he has talked with Yuri Borisov, who replaced Rogozin as head of Roscosmos in mid-July. “I told him that I look forward to seeing him at the first opportunity,” he said. It’s unclear when that opportunity might arise.

Nonetheless, that cooperation on the ISS continues. Last Wednesday, a Soyuz rocket launched the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft to the station with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and two Russian cosmonauts on board. Rubio was the first to fly under a seat exchange agreement completed last July between NASA and Roscosmos. In early October, Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina will fly to the ISS on the Crew-5 Crew Dragon mission with NASA and JAXA astronauts.

“This crew swap represents the ongoing effort of tremendous teams on both sides,” Rubio said in a call with reporters last month. “I think it’s important, when we’re at moments of tension elsewhere, that human spaceflight and exploration, something that both agencies are incredibly passionate about, remains a form of diplomacy and partnership where we can find common ground.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected not just civil space cooperation but commercial endeavors as well. International Launch Services (ILS) started more than 25 years ago as a joint venture of Lockheed Martin, Energia, and Khrunichev to jointly market the Atlas and Proton rockets commercially. The company is now owned by Khrunichev but has its headquarters in Northern Virginia, offering the Proton and Angara to commercial customers.

“Truth be told, both the US government and the Russian government could choose to end ILS if they wanted to,” said Louradour.

That was difficult even before the invasion: the Proton, once a major player in the commercial launch market alongside the Ariane 5 and Sea Launch’s Zenit-3SL in an era where geostationary communications satellites provided most of the demand, has faded both because of problems with the rocket and a market that had shifted. The Angara, set to replace it, has been slow to enter service.

Now, sanctions and export control restrictions make if effectively impossible for any Western customer to launch their satellites on Russian vehicles, even if they wanted to. OneWeb lost access to Soyuz rockets, arranged through a contract with Arianespace, in early March, and had to scramble to find new rides with ISRO and SpaceX.

ILS, though, remains in operation. “Truth be told, both the US government and the Russian government could choose to end ILS if they wanted to,” said Tiphaine Louradour, president of ILS, during a panel at World Satellite Business Week in Paris September 13. “We believe that they recognize the venture still has value in the ties and the relationships between the countries, and that it has merit and purpose to continue.”

She acknowledged, though, that there was little ILS could do now but to wait until relations improve with Russia. “I certainly do hope that, for much broader reasons than ILS, that this current situation will resolve,” she said. “Our job is remain ready and to engage with the community and our customers.”

Asked if ILS could broker launches for non-Western countries that are willing to continue working with Russia, Louradour suggested that would still be difficult. “Being a US company, we have to, and we do, remain fully compliant with all US laws and regulations regarding import and export. We are also compliant with the State Department licensing requirements,” she said. “Opportunities may be there, but we have to evaluate that through that filter.”

She said after the panel that the company was not just sitting around and waiting for a changed geopolitical climate, but instead making sure it was internally prepared to resume sales should that climate change for the better. “We’ll be ready to hit the ground running.”

While Russia’s absence at IAC was not unexpected—reportedly, Russian officials could not get visas to participate—China’s low profile was a different story. The country was not completely absent at the IAC: some officials attended to accept an award from the International Astronautical Federation for the Tianwen-1 Mars mission and give a talk about it. But China, after originally being slated to participate in the heads-of-agencies panel, bowed out at the last minute and did not otherwise have a high profile at the conference.

“Cooperation with China, that’s up to China,” Nelson said at the press conference. “There has to be an openness there, and that has not been forthcoming.” He did not mention the Wolf Amendment, the provision in appropriations bills dating back more than a decade that sharply restricts NASA’s ability to cooperate bilaterally with China in space without Congressional approval.

Nelson said there have been “little glimpses” of such cooperation, such as deconfliction of the countries’ Mars orbiter missions. “I would hope that, on occasions like that, we would continue to have this,” he said. “But, as most of the people observing, I think, would see, there’s not a lot of transparency with regard to the Chinese space program vis-à-vis the US.”

“Cooperation with China, that’s up to China,” Nelson said.

Some at the IAC wondered if the global space community might splitting into two or more blocs. One would led by Western countries and allies, such as signatories of the Artemis Accords. During the conference representatives of the 21 countries that have signed the Accords met in person for the first time, primarily to identify topics of discussion and future work to build upon the principles outlined in the Accords. Another would be led by China and perhaps Russia, who previously committed to work together on an International Lunar Research Station.

A few are trying to straddle that divide. Shortly before the IAC, the United Arab Emirates, which signed the Artemis Accords, announced an agreement to fly a small rover on a future Chinese lunar lander mission. That would be the second such rover built by the UAE; the first, Rashid, is slated to fly late this year on a commercial lunar lander built by Japanese company ispace that will launch on a Falcon 9.

ESA also has some ties with China, said Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, at the press conference. That included work on climate research. “No one can afford to be not participating,” he said of working on climate change. “At the end of the day, there’s one planet, and you cannot divide it.”

However, the lack of Chinese and Russian participation at this year’s IAC appeared to be a sensitive point for the conference organizers. The heads-of-agencies plenary, like others at the conference, used an online service called Slido to solicit questions from the audience and allow them to vote for questions submitted by others. The question getting the most votes asked why, given the “Space for All” conference theme, neither China nor Russia was on the panel, particularly since both countries were slated to participate according to earlier versions of the program. Despite the audience interest, the panel moderators never brought up the question.

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