NASA rescinds invitation to Russian space agency chief

NASA says it has canceled an upcoming visit by the head of Russia’s space agency after mounting pressure from Capitol Hill over US sanctions against the official.

“After receiving feedback from the Senate, we have rescinded our invitation to Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin,” Megan Powers, the press secretary for NASA, told CNN late Friday.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

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement Saturday that 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,” he said.

The NASA administrator had invited Rogozin to tour the agency’s facilities next month and discuss the cooperation between the two countries on space exploration, according to a NASA official.

The official said the invitation to Rogozin had been coordinated with other federal agencies and that the Treasury Department approved US engagement with Rogozin last June.

But the trip had become controversial because the Obama administration had placed sanctions on Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister, in 2014, banning him from traveling to the US “in response to the Russian government’s actions contributing to the crisis in Ukraine,” the White House said when it announced the sanctions.

Several US senators had called on NASA this week to cancel the visit, and two top Democrats threatened congressional intervention to withdraw the invitation.

“To welcome Mr. Rogozin to the United States and provide him a platform to speak is an affront to our sanctions regime and will further undermine the Trump Administration’s limited credibility on Russia policy,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Bridenstine on Thursday.

In a statement Wednesday, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the top Democrat on the Senate panel that funds NASA, argued that the invitation “undermines the United States’ core national security objectives” and “weakens the U.S.’s global standing by demonstrating the ease by which Russian officials can get around transatlantic sanctions.”

Bridenstine’s invitation to Rogozin also drew the ire of LGBTQ advocacy groups, including GLAAD, which pointed to Rogozin’s past derogatory comments about gay and transgender people, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The US and Russia have a long-running collaboration on the International Space Station, and since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the US has depended on Roscosmos to transport astronauts to the space station.

Bridenstine had extended the invitation to his Russian counterpart after a visit to Russia and Kazakhstan in October that was hosted by Roscosmos, the NASA official said.