As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on, the conflict could end up threatening the decades-long U.S.-Russia cooperation in space. On Wednesday, the head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted a video covering up a U.S. flag on a rocket, saying that (according to Twitter’s translation function), “The launchers at Baikonur decided that without the flags of some countries, our rocket would look more beautiful.”
Rogozin has also tweeted much more direct threats that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, might pull out of the International Space Station collaboration. After making said threats, he got into a Twitter fight with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, including suggesting that Kelly “undergo an examination at the Brain Institute of our Federal Medical and Biological Agency” for “dementia and aggression.”
This is not the first time Rogozin has warned that Russia might pull out of the ISS: He did it in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and again in 2020, both in response to sanctions levied against Russia. Still, it raises questions about the future of the ISS and U.S.-Russia collaboration in space. That might not be as immediately important as the suffering of people on the ground—but for those involved with operating the ISS, or those who follow its endeavors, it is concerning.
Despite the threats, the ISS is still operating normally. According to NASA, the ongoing Expedition 66 currently has two Roscosmos cosmonauts and four NASA astronauts, and there has been no indication that the two Roscosmos cosmonauts will be leaving early. Despite other collaborations with Roscosmos fraying or, in some cases, completely falling through, as CBS News reported, NASA has not expressed concern over the functionality of the ISS.
Cady Coleman, who was a NASA astronaut for 24 years and is now global explorer in residence at Arizona State University, spent almost six months on the ISS after she launched in 2010. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) In space, she worked closely with her Russian counterparts. In an interview Friday, she told me she’s the most concerned she has ever been about U.S.-Russia space cooperation. But she’s hopeful.
She says she likes to picture the ISS partnership as “like a ship on the ocean. There are always waves, and the ship weathers the waves. … [S]ometimes the waves are bigger, and sometimes there are storms, but the ship in general, sailed by the people, just forges on.” With what’s happening now, “I just hope that the fact that the ship is designed to sail and that the crew is dedicated to sailing it is going to get [it] through.”
And that crew has always involved a lot of Americans and Russians. As Coleman phrased it, “the Russians and the Americans especially share this history of space.” In 1993, Russia and the United States agreed to combine their space station plans. The first segment, from Russia, launched in 1998, with the second segment from the United States launching a few weeks later. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea was that the station would rely on Russian and American technology and astronauts working together. For example, according to Space.com, the United States handles the electric power of the station, while Russia is responsible for some propulsive elements, like course correcting and maintaining a stable orbit.
For a time after the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA astronauts got to the ISS exclusively by way of Russian rockets. As of 2020, SpaceX is also ferrying U.S. astronauts, and it will transport one Russian cosmonaut in the autumn of 2022.
Coleman had training “off and on in Russia” in the years leading up to liftoff. Russian and American operators would “dine at each other’s homes and [go] out to the market together.” The launch itself happened in Russia by way of Kazakhstan (the area she launched from is leased to Russia) on a Soyuz spacecraft. When she returned to Earth, it too was in Kazakhstan.
English was the primary language on the station, but astronauts were required to have a solid grasp on the Russian language. “One of my jobs was actually labeling all the things in the Russian segment that astronauts would need to read in English as well as in Russian,” she said.
During her time with NASA, she said, geopolitics weren’t as much of a concern, as she did most of her work before Russia annexed Crimea. There were occasional moments of tension between the U.S. and Russia, but that didn’t affect them up in space. “In my experience, when people keep their eyes on the mission, it helps them sort out the cultural differences that they might have,” she told me. It’s also worth remembering that “doing something like the space station … it’s actually an amazing example of international diplomacy, where it’s not just the six astronauts on board. … [I]t’s also hundreds and hundreds of people on the ground, making decisions together all the time.”
And through all the arguments and conflicts here on Earth, the mission and unity behind the ISS still matter. During her work, Coleman says, “it became very clear that exactly what part of this planet you came from was really so much less important than the fact that all of us are connected down here.” So what comes next? Again, she is optimistic: “I’m fairly certain that things will be fine. And that we just need to, you know, keep focused on the mission and do our jobs, so to speak.”