Boy, Did NASA Screw Up This One

Boy, Did NASA Screw Up This One

NASA has rescinded an invitation to the chief of Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, to visit its Houston facilities and speak at Rice University after members of Congress noted that Rogozin is currently prohibited from travelling to the U.S. under sanctions imposed over the situation in Ukraine, CNN reported.

Rogozin was a deputy prime minister of Russia for the Defence and Space Industry from 2011-2018, and a hardline nationalist figurehead of the Russian far-right, before he assumed his role at Roscosmos in 2018. He was also one of several prominent Russian politicians slapped with visa restrictions and asset freezes in mid-2014 amid Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Thus the invitation by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine (which would require a temporary waiver so he could enter the U.S.) raised more than a few eyebrows.

As Politico noted, there was no pressing reason to invite Rogozin to the U.S., and speaking at a “prestigious American university is an honour that the government has not bestowed on other officials it has sanctioned.” Additionally, Rogozin’s assignment at Roscosmos sparked some suspicion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was at least partially trying to undermine sanctions implementation by appointing a sanctioned individual to a job that requires close coordination with U.S. officials. Critics included members of the Senate and LGBTQ advocacy groups concerned the NASA invitation would legitimise Rogozin, who has a long track record of trashing the LGBTQ community, among other expressions of bigotry. Administrators at Rice University said they had no plans to host Rogozin, despite Bridenstine putting it on the canceled trip’s itinerary.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Dmitry Rogozin, right. (Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/Pool, AP)

“If the Trump administration went looking for a Russian partner in its own image, Dima Rogozin would be their guy,” Columbia University professor and Russia expert Steven Sestanovich told Politico earlier this month. “He’s charming, cynical, corrupt, utterly unprincipled, thoroughly anti-American, a pugnacious show-off. Honestly, how could you do better?”

According to CNN, NASA now seems to be in full-scale retreat on the matter and has acknowledged that maybe this whole mess was not the best idea:

“After receiving feedback from the Senate, we have rescinded our invitation to Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin,” Megan Powers, the press secretary for NASA, told CNN late Friday.

Powers added, “Russia is a key partner for NASA, and we look forward to continuing our cooperation.”

In a statement to CNN and other outlets, Bridenstine said he “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… However we will continue our strong working relationship with Russia as it relates to the International Space Station and sending our astronauts into space.”

NASA and Roscosmos have worked together for decades, and currently, the latter agency maintains the only launch vehicle certified to deliver U.S. astronauts to space, the Soyuz system. Though Rogozin threatened to terminate the agencies’ working arrangement after being hit with the sanctions in 2014, the Washington Post reported, he and Bridenstine apparently “bonded over their affinity for aviation” during a trip to Russia in 2018. Bridenstine then apparently made an impromptu offer for Rogozin to come to the states, and by his own admission “did not consult with the White House on inviting Rogozin or then rescinding the invitation,” the Post wrote.

While Bridenstine previously justified the invite by saying he wanted to insulate U.S.-Russia cooperation in space from politics, the resulting headache has done just the opposite.

On Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported, an angry statement from Roscosmos stated that the agency “expects official explanations of NASA’s position,” as well as included a thinly veiled threat that upcoming talks concerning the International Space Station and deep-space exploration could be suspended.