NASA said Wednesday that it's suspending most of its contacts with Russian officials due to U.S.-Russian frictions over Ukraine and Crimea.
The suspension does not affect operations on the International Space Station, in which the United States and Russia are the main partners. It does, however, affect travel to Russia as well as communication and meetings with Russian space officials.
The decision to suspend most contacts was the subject of discussion throughout the day, and confirmed in a NASA statement issued late Wednesday:
"Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.
"NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches — and the jobs they support — back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we're now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.
"The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It's that simple. The Obama administration chooses to invest in America — and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same."
Relations between Washington and Moscow have worsened in the wake of Crimea's secession from Ukraine and its annexation by Russia. However, U.S.-Russian cooperation is essential on the space station, which has been supported by 15 nations throughout its 13 years of operation.
The station is currently commanded by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, with three Russians and two Americans filling out the crew.
Due to the 2011 retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, Russian spaceships provide the only means to transport astronauts to and from the station. However, the station also relies on a U.S.-controlled set of solar arrays for electrical power, as well as U.S. and Russian communication links.
NASA pays the Russians about $70 million per seat for carrying U.S. astronauts, and that arrangement is not expected to be affected by the new policy. The space station is spending more than a billion dollars to fund the development of commercial U.S. space taxis, but those aren't expected to be ready for use until 2017.
Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden faced sharp criticism during a congressional hearing for the agency's reliance on the Russians.
NBC News producer Jay Blackman contributed to this report. First word of the policy surfaced in reports published by NASA Watch and The Verge.
First published April 2 2014, 1:15 PM