NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is tirelessly forming an international coalition to support the Artemis return to the moon program. Recently, Bridenstine signed a Joint Exploration Declaration of Intent (JEDI) with Japan regarding Artemis as well as the International Space Station (ISS). Other countries being wooed as part of the Artemis Coalition include Canada, member states of the European Union, Great Britain, Israel, India and Australia.
Russia, being a senior partner with the United States in the ISS, would be a natural for Artemis. However, it looks like Russia, in an apparent fit of pique, has decided to include itself out of the effort to return to the moon. According to Ars Technica, Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin was quite caustic about the idea of Russia joining the Artemis Coalition, describing the U.S.’s mission to get back to the moon as a “political project,” and one that resembles NATO.
Rogozin would prefer that Russia join with China as a space partner. For a variety of reasons, the move would seem to be crazy from the point of view of Russia’s national interests.
When President Bill Clinton brought Russia in as a full partner in the ISS, he saved the project from cancellation. Congressional Democrats, who had been relentlessly trying to defund the space station, suddenly understood that it had a geopolitical as well as an economic and scientific purpose. As a result, the ISS is orbiting the Earth now, churning out technological and scientific discoveries. It serves as an example of what international cooperation in space can do.
Indeed, by providing American astronauts rides on the Soyuz, after the end of the space shuttle program, Russia can be said to have saved the ISS twice. Both Russia and NASA have benefited from the ISS alliance.
Ironically, by rejecting a role in Artemis and throwing in with China, Russia may have saved the back to the moon program just as it did the ISS. The reason has much to do with a peculiar aspect of American domestic politics.
Congressional Republicans have proclaimed that Democratic stinginess regarding Artemis, most recently seen in a House funding bill that cut the administration’s request, serves China’s space interests. They have pointed out that China’s drive to become the sole superpower on Earth has a space component. It seeks to dominate space and its resources at the expense of the rest of the world. So far, those warnings by Republicans have fallen on deaf Democratic ears.
Now that a Sino-Russian space axis may be forming, the dynamics may change. While ignoring China, Democrats have regarded the Russian threat not so much as President Reagan in the1980s than as Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Indeed, Democrats have spent the entire Trump presidency advancing the conspiracy theory that President Donald Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Manchurian Candidate.
That’s silly stuff on its face, but Democrats seriously believe it. However, because they think Russia is an existential threat to the United States almost 30 years after losing the Cold War, they must view the new Sino-Russian space axis and the prospect of Space Race 2.0 with alarm. Indeed, any move to starve Artemis of funding could be seen as Russian collusion.
We kid, sort of, but the fact remains that Rogozin is making a serious mistake throwing over NASA in favor of the Chinese. With the advent of commercial crew, Russia has lost a lucrative revenue stream that it enjoyed providing rides to and from the ISS.
If the Russians think they are going to get respect from China, they had best think again. Xin Jinping has deep contempt for anyone who is not Han Chinese. If Rogozin doubts this, he should ask the Uighurs. NASA, on the other hand, has always expressed appreciation of Russia’s contributions, even when Rogozin made jokes about Americans reaching the ISS with a trampoline.
In the meantime, leading the rest of the world to the moon, NASA will reap a great deal of political soft power and will help the United States retain its status as a world superpower. Russia can be part of that effort and reap the benefits, but only if it realizes where its best interests reside.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.