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NASA uninvites Russia's space agency director

January 7, 2019

NASA rescinded an invitation to Dmitry Rogozin after US senators spoke out against his visit. Rogozin normally wouldn't have been allowed to enter the US in the first place due to sanctions against him.

Dmitry Rogozin, director general Roscosmos, looking pensive
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Tass/V. Sharifulin

Getting uninvited from a previously arranged visit could be perceived as an impolite slight.

But when the guest is the director general of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, it can become an international relations incident.

Rogozin was originally supposed to visit NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in February 2019, with the option of speaking at nearby Rice University as well. But the visit was a complicated affair from the get-go.

Rogozin first had to receive a special waiver, which the US Treasury Department granted in June 2018. He was on a US government sanctions list because of his involvement in Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. During that time, he was a deputy prime minister within the Russian government.

After several US senators voiced their criticism regarding Rogozin's upcoming visit, NASA rescinded its invitation.

"We had heard from numerous senators suggesting that this was not a good idea, and I wanted to be accommodating to the interest of the senators, so I have rescinded the invitation for Dmitry Rogozin to visit the US," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told The Washington Post. "However we will continue our strong working relationship with Russia as it relates to the International Space Station and sending our astronauts into space."

Invitiation 'undercut US national security objectives'

While political relations between the US and Russia are fraught, the two countries have cooperated in the fields of space science and research for decades.

Just last October, Bridenstine went to Russia and Kazakhstan, where Rogozin showed him around the Baikonur spaceport.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin
Bridenstine (left) visited the Baikonur spaceport with Rogozin (right) in the fall of 2018Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Y. Kochetkov

It's a longstanding tradition that the heads of the two space organizations visit each other — and it only became a problem after Rogozin was announced as the head of Roscosmos in May 2018.

Previous to this job, Rogozin, a Russian nationalist, had held the position of deputy prime minister in charge of Russia's defense industry. That lasted from 2011 to 2018. He was put on a no-entry list and had his accounts frozen by the US government after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

"America's message to the Kremlin should be unequivocal: Actions have consequences," said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in a quote in the daily USA Today. "Administrator Bridenstine's invitation to Dmitry Rogozin, one of the leading architects of the Kremlin's campaign of aggression towards its neighbors, undercuts our message and undermines the United States' core national security objectives." 

Bridenstine emphasized that he discussed neither his original invitation, nor the reversal of it, with the White House.

What happens now?

Since the US scrapped its space shuttle program in 2011, US astronauts have been traveling to and from the International Space Station (ISS) onboard Russian Soyuz spacecrafts. In 2014, when the US instituted the Crimea-related sanctions against Russia, Rogozin suggested on Twitter that NASA could use trampolines to get to the space station instead of Russian rockets.

So how will the "uninvitation" affect the US-Russia space partnership? The crew currently on the ISS consists of Russian commander Oleg Konenenko, Canadian David Saint-Jacques and American Anne McClain, who emphasized in a tweet on December 23 that "we really are all on this amazing, beautiful planet together."

Is there any chance that her trip back to Earth could get more difficult because of the turmoil?

"No, we don't have to worry about that," said Martin Buscher of the Institute for Space and Aviation at Berlin's Technical University (TU) in an interview with DW. "There were tensions between the former Soviet Union and the US again and again, which is why international cooperation hasn't always been easy. But both parties always tried to uphold the cooperation, even during the Cold War."

Buscher firmly believes that the relationship has survived much worse. He says it's hard to say how Rogozin will react to the decision, but that he doubts it'll have serious long-term consequences for astronauts or cosmonauts.

"There will likely be some harsh words," he said. "But I don't think actions will follow." 

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker