Analysis: Souring Russo-UK relations may mean that Tim Peake has to fly to ISS on another ship

by | Mar 14, 2018 | Commercial human spaceflight, ESA, International Space Station, NASA, Seradata News, Soyuz

The likely life-changing effects of the allegedly Russian-produced Novichok nerve-poison assassination attempt on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and to a lesser extent on an attending police officer, in the city of Salisbury, Southern England – has very much soured relations between the UK and Russian governments. While not wanting to escalate the situation or reduce its moral position by making similar actions in retaliation (World War II-style retaliatory assassination plots like Operation Anthropoid or Operation Foxley remain on hold for the time being, as do plans for cyber warfare) nevertheless the UK government is forcing though a series of severe diplomatic, travel and eventual financial sanctions against the Vladimir Putin-led regime and its supporters for its alleged state-run campaign of assassinations against its opponents and “traitors” in the UK.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion order of 23 Russian diplomats and bringing in new legislation to allow the seizure certain Russian assets held in London and increase counter-espionage powers.  As she did so she said: “We have no disagreement with the people of Russia,” adding, “It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.”  Update on 27 March: Over subsequent weeks, some 23 other nations expelled Russian diplomats in a supporting protest against the poison attack which was widely believed to have been ordered by Putin himself.

Russia has promised to retaliate to any punitive measures enacted and has already subsequently ordered a similar expulsion of 23 British diplomats from Russia.  Already the UK Foreign office is warning any Brits thinking of travelling to Russia over the possibility of harassment and public ill feeling. This could this affect business and leisure travel to Russia by UK citizens including football supporters wanting to go to the FIFA World Cup, although Russia has assured them that they will be safe.  Any Russian retaliation may also affect the UK space industry which may find itself banned from using Russian space hardware and launch vehicles.

When it comes to launching more human-related payloads on Russian space hardware, even though he is an official European Space Agency astronaut, British space farer Tim Peake may be precluded from flying on a Soyuz spacecraft flying to the International Space Station (ISS) for his planned second spaceflight after its successful first mission in 2015-2016.  While this move would cause outrage both in ESA and in NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos may not be bothered given that US President Donald Trump has already signalled that US funding of the ISS and its support operations will end in 2025.

Tim Peake flies into orbit in December 2015 on board Soyuz TMA-019M – but it may be his last Soyuz flight. Courtesy: Roscosmos

The Russian space programme itself has previously been indirectly connected with Russia’s assassination programme. The Polonium 210 isotope nuclear poison used to kill defecting Russian secret service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006 was normally used to power radioisotope-decay thermal heaters used on the Soviet-era Lunokhod lunar rover programme.

Tim Peake, an ex-British Army Major and helicopter pilot, may still get a chance to go to the ISS for his second mission. While their programmes have been very much delayed due to technical issues, Boeing and SpaceX are now planning to start their NASA sponsored Commercial Crew launch operations in 2020. Peake could be part of the crews on these early missions in the 2020-21 time frame.



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