NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency have largely managed to play nice despite the ever-mounting tension between Washington and Moscow down here on planet Earth. That, however, is no longer the case as of today, at least based on this internal agency memo obtained by The Verge:
“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted. This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted. In addition, multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation are not precluded under the present guidance.”
NASA is expected to issue a statement on the new policy later today but, in the meantime, unnamed officials at the agency have confirmed the story is legitimate to NBC News and a few others. Still, it’s important to note that giant caveat mentioned in the memo: “operational International Space Station activities have been excepted.” That’s particularly good news for Rick Mastracchio, who has been serving as a flight engineer aboard the ISS for the past several months, and Steve Swanson, who arrived at the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket just last week. (Since the United States retired its space shuttle fleet, NASA’s astronauts have had to hitch rides to the space station with their Russian counterparts. Estimated price per seat: $71 million.)
The memo also left the door open for additional exceptions, so it’s unclear exactly how much too make of the new policy until we hear more from NASA itself. (At least as its laid out in the internal memo, the new company line appears to amount to something like “We’re not going to talk to Russia anymore—unless it helps us, or we want to.”)
Still, the fact that agency officials felt the need to put that policy in print—particularly at a time when NASA relies so heavily on the Russians—marks a departure from the usual public tone struck by U.S space officials when it comes to the Russians. Early last month, for example, NASA chief executive Charles Bolden brushed off questions about the working relationship between the two space agencies, noting that past flare-ups between Washington and Moscow haven’t previously been felt in space and suggesting this one would be no different. “We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies here,” Bolden said then.
This post has been updated.