The Orion capsule is moved at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Nov. 11, 2014. The NASA spacecraft was designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars. 
Photo by Mike Brown/Reuters

NASA raises eyebrows with invitation to sanctioned Russian

Updated

For many years, NASA has welcomed foreign officials to the United States in the hopes of advancing international cooperation, and traditionally, these visits haven’t been especially notable.

But Politico had a report this week that stood out for a reason.

A Trump administration official’s plan to host a sanctioned Russian nationalist in the U.S. in the coming months is raising alarms among Russia hawks in Washington.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine extended an October invitation for his counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, to visit NASA headquarters in Houston in early 2019. U.S.-Russia space cooperation is nothing new. But Rogozin is no typical rocket-science technocrat. He is an ultranationalist politician with a record of stark racism and homophobia who is under American sanctions, which typically bar him from entering the U.S. over his 2014 role, as deputy prime minister, in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Bridenstine, a former GOP congressman whose nomination to lead NASA never really made any sense, invited the controversial Russian with a history of anti-American rhetoric to speak at Rice University, the NASA director’s alma mater. The news was first reported in Russia’s state news agency.

Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration, told Politico the invitation is “appalling,” adding, “It’s utterly inappropriate given who he is and the fact that he is on our sanctions list.”

Asked about Rogozin’s upcoming visit to the United States, Heather Conley, a Russia expert and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added, “Wow. Rogozin is well known for his very destructive public comments about the U.S. What is difficult for me to understand is what is to be gained for giving a sanctioned individual a public platform.”

Some Senate Democrats not only share these concerns, they’re prepared to act on them.

Politico published a follow-up report last night, noting that Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are prepared to block the sanctioned Russian nationalist from reaching American soil.

This comes on the heels of similar reservations from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

There are some angles to this story that are not yet clear, starting with whose idea it was to invite Dmitry Rogozin to the United States in the first place.

Update: NASA’s press office issued a statement this afternoon that read, “NASA has informed the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, that the proposed visit of Roscosmos Director General, Dr. Dimitry Rogozin, currently planned for February 2019 will need to be postponed. A new date for the visit has not been identified.”