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Russia Makes Plans to Kill Space Station in 2020 Due to Sanctions

Russia cast doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station as it retaliated on Tuesday against U.S. sanctions over Ukraine.
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/ Source: Reuters

MOSCOW — Russia cast doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station, a showcase of post-Cold War cooperation, as it retaliated on Tuesday against U.S. sanctions over Ukraine.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow would reject a U.S. request to prolong the orbiting station's use beyond 2020. It will also bar Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites, and suspend the operation of GPS satellite navigation system sites on its territory.

Moscow took the actions in response to U.S. plans to deny export licenses for high-technology items that could help the Russian military.

"We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicizes everything," Rogozin told a news conference.

Washington wants to keep the 15-nation space station project in use until at least 2024, four years beyond the previous target.

Moscow's plan to part ways on a project that was supposed to end the Space Race underlines how relations between the former Cold War rivals have deteriorated since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in March.

Reliance on the Russians

Since the end of the U.S. space shuttle project, Russian Soyuz spacecraft have provided the only means to transport astronauts to and from the space station. NASA is working with several U.S. companies to develop a new generation of space taxis, but those spacecraft aren't due to start flying until 2017.

Until that time, NASA has to pay Russia more than $60 million per seat for flights to the station. Last month, Rogozin quipped that NASA might have to start "using a trampoline" to send its astronauts into orbit.

At a time when Moscow is struggling to reform its accident-plagued space program, Rogozin said U.S. plans to deny export licenses for some high-technology items dealt a blow to Russian industry. "These sanctions are out of place and inappropriate," Rogozin said. "We have enough of our own problems."

Moscow's response would apply to the NK-33 and RD-180 engines that Russia supplies to the United States, Rogozin said. "We are ready to deliver these engines, but on one condition: that they will not be used to launch military satellites," he said.

RD-180 engines are used to boost Atlas 5 rockets manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that holds a virtual monopoly on launching U.S. military satellites.

In response to Rogozin's comments, ULA said it was not yet aware of any restrictions and hopes talks will resolve any issues that do arise. It added that it can use other launch vehicles and has a two-year supply of engines to smooth over any transition.

"ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption," company spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in a statement.

'Strategic changes' ahead

Rogozin said Moscow was planning "strategic changes" in its space industry after 2020 and aims to use money and "intellectual resources" that now go to the space station for "a project with more prospects."

He said the space station could not survive without Russian participation. "The Russian segment can exist independently from the American one," Rogozin said. "The U.S. one cannot."

The Russian segment houses the station's propulsion system, but the station's main solar arrays and communication links are controlled from the U.S. segment.

Rogozin said Russia will suspend the operation of 11 GPS sites on its territory beginning in June, and seek talks with Washington on opening similar sites in the United States for Russia's own satellite navigation system, known as Glonass.

He threatened the permanent closure of the GPS sites in Russia if an agreement isn't reached by September. Rogozin said the suspension of the sites would not affect everyday operations of the GPS system in Russia, where it is used by millions of Russians for navigation on their smartphones and in their cars.

The upheaval in Ukraine — where the United States says Russia is backing separatists and the Kremlin accuses Washington of helping protesters to topple a Moscow-friendly president in February, has led to the worst East-West crisis since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In addition to the high-tech sector sanctions, the United States has imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian lawmakers and officials, including Rogozin. The sanctions also target companies with links to President Vladimir Putin.

The European Union has also imposed sanctions. Earlier Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the latest EU measures were an "exhausted, trite approach" that would only deepen discord and hamper efforts to defuse the crisis in Ukraine.

— Alissa de Carbonnel, Reuters

Update for 4:50 p.m. ET: NASA officials have seen the reports from Moscow but have received no official notification of any change in the arrangements for operating the space station, agency spokesman Bob Jacobs told NBC News. Activities on the station — including preparations for the return of a U.S.-Russian-Japanese crew aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft — have been proceeding as normal, Jacobs said. Here's the written statement issued by NASA on Tuesday:

"We have not received any official notification from Russia’s government regarding any change in our space cooperation. Ongoing safe operation of the International Space Station is expected to continue, including tonight’s return of the Expedition 39 crew and the expected launch of an Expedition 40 crew in two weeks. Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence onboard the ISS."

Additional reporting for Reuters by Irene Klotz and Gabriela Baczynska. Writing by Steve Gutterman and Alissa de Carbonnel. NBC News' Alan Boyle provided additional information for this report.