When Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the whole world watched. But another, much smaller audience is watching: the seven crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting hundreds of kilometers above the chaos below.
For more than two decades of continuous operation, the ISS has been a steady beacon of hope for peaceful international cooperation. The giant space habitat is the product of a remarkable collaboration between the five space agencies (including NASA and the Russian National Space Agency, Roscosmos) representing the 15 participating countries. Over the years, scientific research and international friendships have flourished on the ISS, prompting a number of people to apply for the project to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, some fear the latest Russian attack could put that cooperation in jeopardy. In times of geopolitical upheaval on Earth, what will happen to the ISS?
According to former ISS astronauts, nationality often prevails in the more practical matters of living and working in space. Leroy Chiao, who flew on the 10th expedition to the ISS in 2004, said: “During training, you spend a lot of time together and so you form this deep friendship.
Rick Mastracchio, a retired NASA engineer who flew on the 38th and 39th expeditions to the ISS, echoes that point. “You are there for a very specific job and you are well trained,” he said. Regardless of one’s hometown or political views, “you need to get along for your sake [part of] a group.”
Chiao says the time he spends with his fellow astronauts has given him a measure of insight into Russians’ views on geopolitics. From Russia’s point of view, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO looks like a serious threat to national security. He wondered, how would America react if Mexico and Canada signed the Warsaw Pact before the Soviet Union collapsed? “That will also make it quite difficult for us. So I understand where Russia is coming from,” he said, although he firmly disagreed with the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tensions between Russia and the US also increased unexpectedly when Mastracchio was on the ISS. In March 2014, shortly after orbiting Russia, Russia annexed Crimea in a political move that the US condemned as a “violation of international law”.
“I wouldn’t say it affected the atmosphere, but there was some discussion,” Mastracchio said. He mentioned what he recalls as the suffering of one of his Russian caravan companions, especially the one who feared for his family in a neighboring region of Ukraine. For Mastracchio, memory serves as a reminder that no culture is a political bloc. “You are representing your country on the terms of space agencies, but you are not representing the political side of it,” he said. “It’s kind of annoying when your hometown does something you’re probably not proud of.”
So far, the US and its NATO allies have pursued a policy of retaliatory sanctions targeting Russia’s economy and political leadership. Outlining the policy in a White House speech, President Joe Biden noted that sanctions would “degrade [Russia’s] aerospace industry, including their space program. ”
Exactly how this might affect life on the ISS remains unclear. The seven crew members currently on the habitat are four NASA astronauts, one German astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA), and two Russian cosmonauts. Whatever their personal feelings, perhaps the crew will continue to operate normally in a “business as usual” approach. At least, that’s the plan according to NASA.
“NASA continues to work with all of our international partners, including Roscosmos State Space Corporation, to ensure the continued safe operation of the International Space Station,” the agency said. wrote in an emailed statement. “New export controls will further enable US-Russian civil space cooperation.”
Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment. But in a bunch of tweets on Thursday afternoon, the general manager of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, mocked the sanctions as foolish, adding that “if [the U.S.] prevent cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from losing control out of orbit and falling into the US or Europe? Despite its threatening implications, Rogozin’s statement, in some respects, reflects a simple truth: The Russian Progress resupply spacecraft is currently responsible for periodically raising the altitude of the space station. spaceship, which decreases over time due to atmospheric drag (A US-built Cygnus cargo spacecraft currently docked at the station is scheduled for a test launch in April to demonstrate independent ability to maintain altitude of the ISS.)
Such remarks are not too bad for Rogozin, a Putin appointee. “He has a bit of personality,” said Asif Siddiqi, a historian at Fordham University who specializes in Russian space activities.
When the US issued previous rounds of sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, Rogozin famously responded by suggesting that American astronauts could find their way to the ISS.”with trampoline. (At the time, the US was completely dependent on sending crews to the ISS via Russian Soyuz spacecraft launches. Now, SpaceX rockets and modules serve as crew transport. US delegation and Boeing will soon offer one more domestic launch option.) Rogozin again sparked protests last year with statements implying that in 2018, astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor NASA drilled a small hole on the Soyuz spacecraft for sabotage purposes. In an article by Russia’s state news agency TASS last year, a Russian space official once again raised eyebrows alleging that NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor had drilled a small hole aboard the Soyuz so she can return to Earth soon. NASA has said it does not consider these allegations credible and that it sided with Auñón-Chancellor.
While these periods of tension have strained administrative relations between Roscosmos and NASA in the past, they have never actually disrupted life on the ISS. For example, during the height of the conflict in Crimea, a leaked internal memo asked NASA employees to stop communicating with their Russian colleagues. “However, there is a small clause in it that says actual ISS operations will continue as before,” Siddiqi said. He suspects a similar memo might be in the works right now.
Even if a major ISS partner decides to withdraw from the project, the transition can take months or even years to fully resolve. “It’s not a simple off switch,” Siddiqi said. But unless the current political situation changes, he does not see a future for US-Russian cooperation in space beyond the decommissioning of the ISS, which is currently planned for 2031. NASA is currently considers its ambitious Artemis program, which will work with ESA, Japan’s Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency to build an outpost in lunar orbit to support return astronauts the lunar surface for long periods of time. Meanwhile, Roscosmos has pledged to work with China to build a lunar base of its own. International divisions over space travel appear to be growing — with the cooperation demonstrated by the ISS only dwindling.
“Clearly this is a relationship that will not continue past a certain point,” Siddiqi said. “I can’t see it recovering from this.”
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/russias-invasion-of-ukraine-strains-international-space-station-partnership/ Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Strains International Space Station Partnership