When Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the world watched. But there was another, much smaller audience: seven crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting hundreds of miles above the chaos below.
For more than two decades, the ISS has been a steady beacon of hope for peaceful international cooperation. The massive space habitat is the product of an excellent partnership between five space agencies (including NASA and Russia’s National Space Agency, Roscosmos) representing the 15 participating countries. Over the years, research and international friendship have flourished aboard the ISS, prompting some to petition for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But some fear that Russia’s latest attack could jeopardize that cooperation. What is happening to the ISS at a time of geopolitical turmoil on Earth?
According to former ISS astronauts, nationality usually takes a back seat to more practical issues of living and working in space. “During training, you spend a lot of time together, and that’s why you have deep friendships,” said Leroy Chao, who flew on the 10th ISS Expedition in 2004.
Rick Mastrakia, a retired NASA engineer who flew the 38th and 39th ISS expeditions, echoes that view. “You’re here to do very specific work, and you’re well-trained,” he says. Regardless of the homeland and political views, “you need to get along, because you [part of] team ».
Chao says the time he spent with his fellow astronauts gave him the prospect of an idea of Russia’s views on geopolitics. From Russia’s point of view, the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to NATO may look like a serious threat to national security. How would the United States react to the question of whether Mexico and Canada signed the Warsaw Pact before the fall of the Soviet Union? “It would also make us pretty sharp. So I understand where Russia comes from, ”he said, although he strongly disagreed with the nation’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tensions between Russia and the United States also rose unexpectedly when Mastracchia was aboard the ISS. In March 2014, shortly after his orbital stay, Russia annexed Crimea as a result of a political move that the U.S. condemned as a “violation of international law”.
“I will not say that it affected the atmosphere, but there was some discussion,” says Mastraccia. He mentions what he recalls of the suffering of one of his Russian friends on the crew, who allegedly feared for his family in the neighboring region of Ukraine. For Mastracchio, memory serves as a reminder that no culture is a political monolith. “You represent your country from the point of view of space agencies, but you do not represent the political aspect,” he said. “It’s a little awkward when your homeland does things you might not be proud of.”
So far, the United States and its NATO allies have pursued a policy of sanctions in response to Russia’s economy and political leadership. Teaching politics during a speech at the White House, President Joe Biden noted that sanctions “degrade [Russia’s] the aerospace industry, including their space program».
How exactly this may affect life on the ISS remains unclear. The seven crew members currently aboard are four NASA astronauts, one German astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA) and two Russian astronauts. Regardless of their personal feelings, it is likely that the crew will continue to operate normally “as usual”. At least, such a plan according to NASA.
“NASA continues to work with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation” Roscosmos “, for the safe operation of the International Space Station,” the agency said. “New export controls will continue to enable US-Russian cooperation in civil space.”
Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment. But in a series of tweets On Thursday afternoon, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin ridiculed the sanctions as nonsense, adding that “if [the U.S.] is blocking cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled descent into orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? ” Despite the threatening consequences, Rogozin’s statement reflects simple facts in some respects: the Russian Progress spacecraft is currently responsible for periodically increasing the altitude of the space station, which is declining over time due to atmospheric resistance. (The US-built Cygnus cargo spacecraft, now docked to the station, is scheduled to undergo test acceleration in April to demonstrate the ISS’s independent ability to maintain altitude.)
Such comments are not entirely unpleasant for Rogozin, Putin’s appointee. “You know, he’s a person,” said Asif Siddiki, a historian at Fordham University who specializes in Russian space activities.
When the US imposed previous rounds of sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, Rogozin certainly responded, suggesting that American astronauts could find a way to the ISS. “with a trampoline». (At the time, the U.S. was completely dependent on sending crews to the ISS through launches of Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Now SpaceX rockets and modules serve as U.S. crew vehicles, and Boeing plans to provide an additional internal launch option soon.) ‘Statements that in 2018 NASA astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor drilled a tiny hole in the Soyuz spacecraft for sabotage. Last year, in an article by Russia’s state news agency TASS, a Russian space official again accused NASA astronaut Serena Avnion-Chancellor of drilling a tiny hole in the Soyuz spacecraft so she could return to Earth earlier. NASA has said it does not consider the allegations credulous and supports the Chancellor of Union.
Although these periods of tension in the past have exacerbated administrative relations between Roscosmos and NASA, they have never truly disrupted life on the ISS. In the midst of the Crimean conflict, for example, leakage of internal note instructed NASA staff to cut off communication with Russian counterparts. “However, there is a small point in this, which says that the actual operations of the ISS will continue as before,” – said Siddiki. He suspects a similar note may be present.
Even if the ISS’s main partner decides to exit the project, the transition could take months or even years to fully resolve. “It’s not a simple switch,” says Siddiki. But unless the current political situation changes course, it sees no future for U.S.-Russian cooperation in space following the decommissioning of the ISS, which is currently scheduled for 2031. NASA is already looking forward to its ambitious Artemis program, which will partner with ESA, Japan Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency to build an orbital lunar outpost to support the astronauts ’long-term return to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, Roscosmos has promised to join forces with China to build its own lunar base. The international split in space flight seems to be growing, and the cooperation embodied by the ISS is only diminishing.
“It is clear that this is a relationship that will not continue after a certain point,” – says Siddiki. “I don’t see him recovering from that.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine strains the partnership of the International Space Station
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