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US Senate weighs NASA decision to restrict ties with Russia

WASHINGTON — The granddaughter of former President Dwight Eisenhower — the man who founded NASA at the start of the Cold War — on Wednesday warned that NASA was making a “counterproductive and damaging” mistake by restricting ties with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Speaking before a U.S. Senate panel, Susan Eisenhower, a longtime NASA adviser, said the administration erred last week when it cut off most ties with Roscosmos, Russia’s space program, in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a former territory of Ukraine.

“Rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and long-term space agenda,” said Eisenhower, referring to new restrictions on NASA travel to Russia and contact between U.S. and Russian scientists.

The major exception to NASA’s blockade of Roscosmos is the operation of the International Space Station, where two NASA astronauts currently are living alongside three Russian cosmonauts, as well as a sixth astronaut from Japan.

But Eisenhower said even this exception had pitfalls.

“Where does work on ISS begin and where does it end?” she asked in prepared remarks. “This could be of major significance if there is an emergency in space that impacts the community beyond the operational side of the ISS.”

One NASA official who also appeared at the hearing conceded that Eisenhower had a point, but said the level of safety onboard the ISS remained unchanged — at least for now.

“It’s not a concern at this point. We have a very strong relationship with Roscosmos and our partners and doing day-to-day operations in a very effective manner,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations, in an interview.

“But I think we need to be aware of what Susan (Eisenhower) said and make sure that we are continually vigilant.”

Asked whether NASA made the right call in restricting ties, Gerstenmaier — a longtime NASA veteran who frequently works with Russia — declined to elaborate, but he noted that “there are huge advantages to our cooperation in space.”

NASA is in the process of reviewing some of the other partnerships it has with Russia to determine if other exemptions are warranted. Gerstenmaier said Wednesday that NASA will allow its people to participate in a space research conference this August in Moscow.

In her testimony, Eisenhower said that restricting communication between scientists could backfire on the U.S. because the Russian scientific community was among the country’s “most progressive” political sectors and the one that is open to finding common ground.

“We want to make sure that we express our displeasure with Russian behavior and do so in a way that will count with the regime and not punish our friends,” she said.

The only two senators to attend the hearing were both from Florida: Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.

Rubio said that Eisenhower brought an “interesting perspective” but that he ultimately supported NASA’s restrictions.

“The geopolitical realities of what we’re facing there (in Ukraine) are significant enough that I’m not prepared to criticize the decision that was made,” he said.

Nelson took a different tack.

“I agree with Susan Eisenhower,” he said.
 

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