Russia replaces provocative head of its space agency, signs deal with NASA to share resources

·5 min read
Russia has replaced Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, according to the Kremlin's website.  (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters - image credit)
Russia has replaced Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, according to the Kremlin's website. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters - image credit)

The Kremlin says it has replaced the contentious head of its space agency, a man who had repeatedly threatened Russia would abandon the International Space Station if sanctions aren't lifted.

Roscosmos's former director general, Dmitry Rogozin, is known for his provocative comments, including threatening nuclear war and telling the U.S. it would need "broomsticks" to fly to the space station.

But Russia's space agency and NASA confirmed Friday they have now signed an agreement to integrate flights to the International Space Station. The deal would allow Russian cosmonauts to fly on U.S.-made spacecraft in exchange for Americans to ride on Russia's Soyuz rocket starting in Sept.

Former U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly told CBC News it's the "wrong decision."

"I'm not a big fan of Russians flying on a U.S. vehicle right now," he said. "I wasn't too happy seeing that. I think it sends the wrong message. I think it's bad optics."

Pyotr Dubrov/Roscosmos
Pyotr Dubrov/Roscosmos

Kelly has flown on Russia's Soyuz and commanded the ISS on three expeditions in the past.

Unless there's no other option, Kelly said, the U.S. and Russia shouldn't be blasting off together while Russia's forces are killing civilians and under investigation for war crimes in Ukraine.

But Kelly said he is glad to see Rogozin has been removed as long as he's not placed in an even more powerful role within the Russian government.

Move not a demotion for Rogozin: Garneau

Member of Parliament and Canada's first astronaut in space, Marc Garneau, said his understanding from media reports is that Russian President Vladimir Putin had other plans for Rogozin, one of the president's allies and a longtime nationalist leader.

"It has nothing to do with his performance there and more to do with Putin wanting him to assume a new role," Garneau told CBC News.

Russian state media is reporting that the country's former deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov is replacing Rogozin.

The move is the latest in a series of rare developments after tension on the ground in Ukraine reached new heights as it hit the International Space Station (ISS).

U.S. President Joe Biden announced sanctions to "degrade" Russia's space program the same day Russian forces invaded Ukraine.  Rogozin responded by asking "who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?"

Since then, Rogozin has launched a blustery war of words online and posted a video showing workers covering the flags of international partners with tape on the side of a rocket. In March, Rosmoscos also posted a fake video showing Russian cosmonauts abandoning an American astronaut aboard the space station.

Reuters
Reuters

Then came a move that angered the world.

Roscosmos released a pair of photos on social media platform Telegram on July 4, showing a trio of cosmonauts posing with the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic flags after Russian-backed separatist forces declared victory in those regions.

Historically, the ISS has been a beacon of international co-operation — and a place that's supposed to be free of politics.

WATCH | Countries condemn Russia for war propaganda on International Space Station: 

Canada issues rare statement of condemnation 

Space agencies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe fired back with rare statements of condemnation.

The Canadian Space Agency joined NASA a week ago with a rebuke against using the ISS "for political purposes to support its illegal war against Ukraine."

The European Space Agency then went further and on Tuesday terminated its co-operation with Russia in connection to its launch of a rover on Mars.

Garneau said if he had been on the space station when the photos with the flags were taken he wouldn't have been happy.

"Using the International Space Station as a vehicle for political purposes is definitely not a good thing to do," he said. "You can't undo it now. It's been done… It's very regrettable, because it detracts from the one area of international co-operation."

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Garneau said he thinks the three cosmonauts were "given their marching orders" —  possibly from Rogozin or higher and "had to do it."

He said Canada needs to be open to the possibility that Russia could abandon the International Space Station, because Moscow is so unpredictable.

"I think you always have to always have your eyes open," Garneau said. "The ball is in Russia's court … They're the ones that I believe are ultimately the only ones that might initiate a breakup."

Sanctions crushing agency's development, says expert

Pavel Luzin, a Russian space policy expert, said the ISS can survive without Russia and international partners should cut ties.

"Western partners should think seriously whether or not they want to continue being partners with Russia."

Roscosmos/Telegram
Roscosmos/Telegram

NASA wants to keep the space station running until 2030, but Russia so far has only committed to 2024.

Jill Stewart is an academic at the London School of Economics, specializing in politics, ethics and laws of outer space exploration. She said that all countries use space activity to some degree to push propaganda and nationalism, but Russia is using the space station to try and shift the narrative.

"They are seeking to control and push the boundaries of what the partners aboard the International Space Station are willing to tolerate," she said.

Russia has been one of the largest partners on the space station for the past three decades. For much of that time, buying a seat on Russia's Soyuz rocket was one of the only ways up, something that now costs up to $90 million per seat. But that's changing with the launch of Elon Musk's SpaceX in the U.S.

The three Russian cosmonauts involved in the propaganda blasted off to the ISS alone in March, marking the first time in 22 years that a Russian-only crew flew to the ISS without astronauts from other countries.

NASA says the new agreement to integrate space flights "ensures there are appropriately trained crew members on board the station for essential maintenance and space walks."

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