Space leaders refused visas
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev – a veteran of the Mir space station and three US space shuttle missions – was denied a visa to attend a prestigious annual space conference in Canada this week.
He was one of eight Russian space leaders and an unspecified number of Chinese officials who all failed to obtain visas for the 65th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Toronto.
Both countries had been expected to field high-ranking representatives on an influential panel featuring the heads of the world’s major space agencies.
Instead, the chiefs of the US, European, Canadian, Japanese and Indian space agencies were joined by the newly formed Mexican space agency.
According to the IAC programme both Oleg Ostopenko, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, and China’s Xu Dazhe, administrator of the China National Space Administration, should have been present.
The absence of Russian and Chinese delegations undermined space agency arguments that international space cooperation should remain above short-term political issues.
It also left gaps in several technical sessions related to the future of the international space station, the development of new Chinese rockets and other topics.
Walter Natynzcyk, head of the Canadian space agency, was unable to provide any information.
“Our foreign affairs people do that kind of thing so frankly I don’t know the answer. With regard to the visas I was notified just 48 hours before that there was an issue,” he said.
Berndt Feuerbacher, of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), admitted the visa issues had left significant holes in this year’s IAC programme and stretched the credibility of the idea that space is a protected domain.
Asked by a delegate how a panel discussing global space cooperation could do without China and Russia, Feuerbacher replied: “This was not our intention and it is very unfortunate that problems with visas meant those delegations could not be here. I apologise.”
An official from Roscomos confirmed via the Interfax news agency on Tuesday that only two of its delegation had obtained visas and these were both translators who had been the last to apply.
“Failure to obtain visas for Russians is clearly politically motivated,” the official said.
A spokesperson for Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration department admitted some applications had been denied.
In an email response to questions from the Canadian press, Nancy Caron said: “Each will be assessed on its merits by professional, non-partisan publoic servants in accordance with Canada’s security and immigration laws.”
Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev has been a regular attendee of the annual space conference at locations all over the world in recent years.
He is a veteran of six space flights and has spent more time in space than any other person, logging a total of 803 days, nine hours and 39 minutes.
Krikalev was also a member of the crew that launched with Britain’s first space flier, Helen Sharman, in 1991.
After Russia’s incursion into Ukraine earlier this year, the US government exempted the international space station – for which Russia is the biggest of Nasa’s partners – from any of the sanctions imposed by the West.
Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said the way the space station is being managed between the two nations would leave an outsider with no idea of the tensions stressing relations between Russia and the West.
Whilst European governments and the US have been careful to limit the impact of the crisis on international space cooperation, Canada has taken a more aggressive line.
It is the only Western government to have extended Russian sanctions to barring a satellite from being exported to Russia for launch aboard a Soyuz rocket.
And a Canadian maritime monitoring satellite was recently denied an export license at the last minute after pressure from the country’s large Ukrainian expatriate community.
The United States, Europe and Asian nations, however, have all continued to send commercial and scientific satellites to Russia for launch.
Next year the space conference – which attracts around 3,000 scientists and space professionals – is due to be held in Jerusalem, Israel, a location which is likely to test the progressive politics of space even further.
Clive Simpson – IAC 2014, Toronto