NASA Rebukes Russia for Using ISS for Political Purposes

NASA Rebukes Russia for Using ISS for Political Purposes

NASA issued a rare rebuke today of Russia, a critical partner in the International Space Station, for using the facility for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been striving to keep the ISS out of the political fray, but Russia’s decision to show its ISS cosmonauts holding flags for two Ukrainian regions Russia now claims apparently tipped the scale.

Nelson is a champion for the view that space is one arena where the United States and Russia can work together in common purpose despite what is happening on Earth. He often harkens back to the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts docked together for two days of joint operations during the Cold War.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. Despite the breakdown of space cooperation in almost every other sphere since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the ISS partners have held together.

When asked, Nelson typically condemns Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but calls for continued cooperation on ISS. He told the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee in May that he sees “nothing that has interrupted that professional relationship [on ISS] no matter how awful Putin is conducting a war with such disastrous results in Ukraine.”

The space station was designed as an interdependent facility. NASA has long held that at least one Russian cosmonaut and one American astronaut must be onboard to ensure continued operations. The Russian segment of the ISS provides propulsion to periodically reboost the space station to compensate for atmospheric drag and perform space debris avoidance manuevers. The U.S. segment provides electrical power for the entire facility. In addition, last year Russia launched its newest space station module, Nauka, that includes a robotic arm provided by ESA. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti are scheduled to conduct a joint spacewalk on July 21 to activate it.

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk. Illustration credit: NASA

Seven crew members are currently aboard the ISS: three Russians who arrived on Soyuz MS-21 in March, and three Americans and one European who arrived on SpaceX’s Crew-4 in April.

Crew-4: Bob Hines (U.S.), Samantha Cristoforetti (ESA/Italy), Jessica Watkins (U.S.), Kjell Lindgren (U.S.)
Soyuz MS-21 crew: Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev, and Denis Matveev.

Nelson and other NASA officials have insisted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that day-to-day ISS operations are unaffected and the ISS crew members and their ground-support teams are working together just as before.  By contrast, Nelson’s Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, has been issuing offensive tweets and posts on Telegram. He is Director General of Russia’s Space State Corporation Roscosmos, which is not part of the Russian government, but he is a former Russian Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense and aerospace sectors. He held that position when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has been subject to U.S. sanctions since then.

Three days ago, Russia published a photo of its three cosmonauts aboard the ISS holding flags of what Russia calls the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Luhansk and Donetsk are two regions of Ukraine that Russia has been trying to occupy for years.

Terry Virts, a retired NASA astronaut and former ISS commander, tweeted the photo as published in the Guardian with his commentary.

Ironically, the cosmonauts arrived on the ISS wearing flight suits in the colors of Ukraine — yellow and blue — briefly suggesting they opposed the war, but it turned out they are the school colors of the Baumann Moscow State Technical University from which all of them graduated.

Late this afternoon, NASA issued this statement.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews — always with at least one Russian and one American — since the first crew floated aboard in November 2000. Flying each other’s crew members on Soyuz and the U.S. space station was routine.

After the United States terminated the shuttle in 2011, however, NASA had to pay Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from ISS. Now that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is operational, it no longer has to pay, but NASA still wants to keep the practice going on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. The two countries have been negotiating for years and agreement was close just before the war began and Russian cosmonauts have been training at Johnson Space Center since then. Anna Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s cosmonaut corps, has been expected to fly on the next Crew Dragon mission and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio on the next Soyuz mission this fall.

What effect all of this will have on the crew exchange agreement, which must be approved by the U.S. State Department and Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and future ISS relationships remains to be seen, but it definitely seems to be an inflection point.

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