Tensions between the Russian Federation and most of the world particularly with the United States have now reached an all-time high ever since the conclusion of World War II.
This is simply attributed to President Vladamir Putin‘s acts of aggression by deciding to invade Ukraine on Thursday morning.
Increasing conflict between the two world superpowers has got people (such as myself) wondering what exactly would become of any form of US-Russia relationship most especially their space alliance where the two nations through their respective space agencies effectively operate/manage the International Space Station while conducting scientific research in meteorology, astronomy and astrobiology from there.
US-Russia Space relations goes back generations
NASA (National Aeronautical Space Administration) and Rocosmos (Russia’s State Space Corporation) have been working together on the ISS for about 30 years now but their partnership goes even further than that.
The two organizations have worked together on multiple ventures such as the Apollo-Soyuz project of the mid 1970s. They also worked together on Russia’s former Shuttle-Mir Program of 1993-1998 that involved American space shuttles visiting the Russian space station Mir to conduct long duration space expeditions.
Their decades long partnership in space has historically been one of the most stable elements of the two nations’ relations regardless of what happens on the ground. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine however, is shaping up to be a difficult test of that alliance.
The ISS is currently home to 7 astronauts
On board the ISS right now are NASA’s astronauts; Raja Chari, Kayla Barron, Thomas Marshburn and Mark Vande Hei. Russia has two astronauts; Anton Shkaplerov and Pyot Dubrov, both on board.
Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency is also residing and working at the space lab bringing the total number of astronauts currently at the ISS to seven.
The head of the Russian Space Corporation takes a dig at the United States and the rest of the west
Shortly after the invasion started on Thursday, US President Joe Biden in his global address at the White House added new sanctions to be levied against Russia which would “degrade” its aerospace industry as well as its space program.
The President’s remarks haven’t gone too well with everyone as the head of Rocosmos – Dmitry Rogozin – hit back with a storm of wild, angry tweets on Twitter in response to President Biden and the United States in general, he said,
“Maybe President Biden is off topic so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships.”
He also took a swipe at Space X’s founder Elon Musk for launching thousands of Starlink internet satellites which he says have polluted the low earth orbit.
He wasn’t done ranting just yet, and went on to add, “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500 ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia therefore all the risks are yours.”
It’s hard to tell what the real intention/motive is behind Rogozin‘s sarcastic comments.
His primary message and point of concern though is that announcements of further economic sanctions by the US against Moscow could potentially destroy Russia’s cooperation with the US at the ISS.
Running the ISS is a collective effort between NASA and Rocosmos
The International Space Station is divided into 2 sections; The Russian Orbital Segment – operated by Russia through Rocosmos & the United States Orbital Segment – operated by NASA and other international space agencies that make up the ISS.
Russia’s booster rockets help steer the giant lab in the sky away from space debris as well as keeping it in orbit, preventing it floating off into deep space or from (falling down) entering the earth’s atmosphere.
The US provides wireless communications, computer services, spacewalk equipment and the solar power that powers the space station.
Its safe to say both sections of the station are married or connected rather.
“The Russian segment can’t function without the electricity on the American side and the American side can’t function without the propulsion systems that are on the Russian side. So you can’t do an amicable divorce. You can’t do a conscious uncoupling.” Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman recently told CNN.
NASA’s astronauts are not trained to operate Russian systems and vice versa for the Russian astronauts.
Neither the Russians nor Americans or anyone else can successfully operate the ISS on their own, all sides need one another.
NASA in response, steers clear of Dmitry Rogozin’s wild remarks
NASA hasn’t responded directly to Dmitry Rogozin‘s fiery tweets but has noted that it continues to work with Rocosmos and its other international partners such as Canada, Japan and Europe to maintain safe operations of the ISS.
Cooperation will also continue on the ground they noted, with 3 Russian astronauts currently training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 2 NASA astronauts have further completed training in Russia in early February.
Following NASA’s announcement that it intends to continue business as usual with Russia, Rogozin appears to have backed down a bit from his online antics tweeting,
“As diplomats say, our concerns have been heard. NASA confirmed its willingness to continue to cooperate with Rocosmos. In the meantime, we continue to analyze the new US sanctions to detail our response.“
For what its worth, Mr. Rogozin does have a history of making sarcastic yet aggressive comments in relation to possible developments in space.
The ISS is approaching the end of its lifetime
While the thought of a massive space structure falling to earth seems tragic as Rogozin alluded to earlier, its something you’d only see in the movies but its bound to happen someday as it cannot live up in space forever.
Plans are already being made on how to safely bring down (de-orbit) the station into Earth’s atmosphere once its lifespan comes to an end.
Since it is such a massive object, it is expected that chunks of it will survive the heated descent (re-entry) through Earth’s atmosphere and so NASA plans to dump the remains at an unpopulated region of the Pacific ocean.
However, plans to retire the lab will still depend on the US & Russia collaborating as Russia’s spacecrafts which have propulsion capabilities to move extremely heavy cargo would be required to bring down the heavy structure in an orderly and safe manner.
NOTE: The United States wants the station to remain in orbit until 2030 while Russia hasn’t committed itself to beyond 2024.
A strained marriage that has withstood the test of time
The ISS itself was born in part from a foreign policy initiative to improve US-Russia relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union & subsequent end of the Cold War which had sparked a space race rivalry between the two countries.
This is not the first time the International Space Station has faced conflicts between the United States and Russia and neither will it be the last.
The Russian space agency boss had previously told CNN in an interview with western media in September 2021 that the ISS, “is a family where a divorce within a station is not possible.”
Both agencies have nonetheless shown a lot of resolve to withstand all challenges that have come between them over the years, that’s why they continue to join hands at the ISS for scientific research purposes to this day.
Quick facts about the ISS
The research platform is about the length of a football field and orbits some 260miles (418kilometres) above the surface of earth at 17,500 mph (28,164km/h).
At that speed, it circles the earth in approximately 93 minutes, meaning it circumnavigates (goes round) our planet 15 times per day.
The lab weighs an incredible 450 metric tons here on earth but its enormous weight is negligible (it weighs nothing) in space because of zero gravity.
The space partnership between the US and Russia may be stable for now but with the current political, social and economical climate between the two, the future of this collaboration grows more uncertain each passing day.
I will keep monitoring this situation in the coming days and weeks to keep you posted on what’s taking place in the skies above you.
Hopefully we very soon get to see a de-escalation of the global mess brought about by the Kremlin. The stability of the world including the Space Station depends on it.