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NASA's Astronauts Could Be Stranded in Space if Russia Cancels Their Ride Home

If relations worsen further between the US and Russia, NASA's astronauts at the ISS won't have any immediate way of getting back to Earth.

by Jason Koebler
Apr 4 2014, 4:00pm

Photo via Reuters

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

NASA just cut off all of its non-International Space Station communication and collaboration with Russia because of the country’s aggression in Ukraine. That raises the question: What happens if Russia decides to cut all ties with NASA?

The relationship between NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, when it comes to the International Space Station, is a symbiotic one — much of the technology in the space station is controlled by NASA, so if Russia decides it doesn’t want to shuttle American astronauts back and forth, the agency has some options for recourse. But the Russians are certainly in a pretty powerful position when you consider that NASA has no other way to get humans to space. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Vladimir Putin could decide that Americans are no longer welcome aboard Soyuz spacecraft.

'Being at Putin’s mercy is not a good place to be.'

NASA won’t say whether it has any contingency plans to get the two Americans (Rick Mastracchio, who has been there for roughly five months and Steve Swanson, who just got there two weeks ago) back to Earth should that happen. But the situation highlights why it’s so important for NASA to work with SpaceX or some other commercial operator to get manned missions to the ISS lifting off from America again.

NASA astronaut Steven Swanson tests a space suit during pre-launch preparations at the Baikonur cosmodrome on March 25. Photo via Reuters.

NASA said as much in a statement about why they’re going to stop working with Russia on everything except for ISS-specific missions.

“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,” the agency said. “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 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.”

That's a not-too-subtle jab at lawmakers (who love cutting NASA's budget), but, that aside, what happens if things devolve and America’s astronauts can’t wait until 2017? Publicly, the agency says that it just isn't going to happen: “The space station partnership is strong. We’ll continue to proceed with space station operations as they are currently,” a NASA spokesperson told me.

'Even if NASA wanted to tell Russia to take their Soyuz and shove it, they probably couldn’t.'

But if push comes to shove, SpaceX could likely quickly modify its Dragon capsule, which has been flying resupply missions to the ISS for more than a year now, to hold human passengers. They’d likely be required to install a life support system, a process that could be done within a couple months, but a few oxygen tanks and rudimentary seats might do the trick for a single emergency mission.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hasn’t kept secret his disdain for NASA’s current system of shelling out $70 million per seat to the Russians — he says he could sell tickets to NASA for just $20 million a head. Neither have lawmakers, who are none-too-pleased that America is writing massive checks to a country that the US is actively sanctioning.

But even if NASA wanted to tell Russia to take their Soyuz and shove it, they probably couldn’t: A year ago, NASA signed a $424 million contract with Roscosmos that ensures (barring some sort of international incident) that American astronauts will ride the Soyuz through at least 2017.

Learn the best ways of screwing your partner in space, here.

As Musk recently told Bloomberg TV, “being at Putin’s mercy is not a good place to be.” NASA knows this. Even if they won’t say it publicly, behind the scenes, they must be making some sort of plan in case things in Crimea get worse.

“Engineering is engineering,” Kelly Humphries, a spokesperson for NASA, told me when I asked him if the agency had asked SpaceX to speed up its crewed mission capabilities. “We’re working with commercial companies to make sure everything is done properly so the spacecraft will interact properly with the International Space Station. You’ve got to do things the right way to make sure things are safe for people.”

I can think of few things less safe than being stuck 230 miles from the Earth’s surface with no ride home.