Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has yet again raised concerns about the country’s relationship with the United States in space, a union which has remained remarkably intact despite geopolitical rifts between the two countries.
Four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts, and one European Space Agency astronaut are stationed aboard the International Space Station, their home traveling 17,500 mph some 200 mile above Earth where Russian forces continue moving into Ukraine.
The US and Russia’s decades-long partnership in space has historically been one of the more stable elements of the two superpowers’ relations, regardless of what happens on the ground. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shaping up to be a stern test of that alliance.
In a statement to FLORIDA TODAY, NASA’s Jackie McGuinness on Thursday said the agency “continues working with Roscosmos and our other international partners in Canada, Europe, and Japan to maintain safe and continuous International Space Station operations.”
Stationed aboard the ISS right now are NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari Thomas Marshburn, and Mark Vande Hei; European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer; and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.
The chief of Roscosmosthe state corporation responsible for spaceflight, issued a statement Wednesday and said he values the NASA relationship but feels conflicted about other areas of US policy.
“We greatly value our professional relationship with NASA, but as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, I am completely unhappy with the sometimes openly hostile US policy towards my country,” Dmitry Rogozin said just before the invasion.
In his first speech since the invasion, meanwhile, President Biden on Thursday said new sanctions levied against Russia will target “the aerospace industry, including their space program.”
That prompted a tart rebuke from Rogozin who implied there could be consequences for the latest round of punitive measures for the invasion of Ukraine.
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe,” I tweeted in Russian late Thursday.
Despite SpaceX success, Russia still provides rides to US astronauts
The ISS has been continually occupied since 2000.
Hundreds of people from several countries have conducted scientific research onboard, and the station’s hardware is just as diverse – neither the Russian nor American segments are self-sufficient and rely on each other for everything from power to communications.
For the time being, the US side has an advantage compared to just a few years ago: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. It stands as NASA’s only access to the ISS without reliance on the Russians, giving the agency some leverage.
For nearly 10 years after the end of the shuttle program in 2011, NASA paid Russia to ferry US astronauts to the space station. For some missions, it still does.
Before the invasion, the two countries were discussing flying cosmonauts on Crew Dragon in the future, but the status of those talks is unclear.
Officials for decades have been prepared for political turmoil to rattle operations in space, where the cost of entry has led to partnerships like the ISS. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t the first time tensions have led to questions.
Just three months ago, the Russian military fired an anti-satellite weapon that destroyed an old spacecraft, sending a massive debris field too close to the ISS for comfort. The crew had to take shelter in capsules as the field passed by. In 2014, astronauts and cosmonauts were put in a similar situation when Russian invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Going back to the height of the Cold War, both partnered on Apollo-Soyuz, the first international space mission that saw two capsules from different countries dock in 1975. Millions watched the orbital meeting that potentially meant a more peaceful relationship in space for the two superpowers.
Looking ahead, however, the ISS partnership could see a changing dynamic. NASA ultimately hopes to transfer the aging outpost into the hands of private industry sometime in the next decade while it focuses resources toward missions beyond Earth orbit.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism