Russian Launch to ISS Underscores Some Space Cooperation Unchanged

Russian Launch to ISS Underscores Some Space Cooperation Unchanged

As scheduled long before Russia invaded Ukraine, three Russian cosmonauts launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome today and arrived at the International Space Station to begin a normal tour of duty. With the exception of the individual who heads Russia’s space program, NASA and its ISS partners, including the Russians who work with their NASA counterparts on a daily basis, have maintained a sense of calm professionalism as the international crew aboard the ISS circles Earth every 90 minutes despite the geopolitical turmoil below.

Soyuz MS-21 on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan minutes before its launch to the International Space Station on March 18, 2022. Screengrab.

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov lifted off at 11:55 am EDT, which was 8:55 pm local time at Baikonur. Russia leases the launch site from Kazakhstan.

This is Artemyev’s third mission to ISS, but the first for both of his companions.

They docked at the ISS just over 3 hours after launch at 3:12 pm EDT. The docking was a few minutes later than expected because Artemyev had to conduct a manual docking after an unspecified issue arose with the automated system.

They are beginning an approximately 6-month stay at the ISS, replacing Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei who will return to Earth on March 30.

Soyuz MS-21 crew, all Roscosmos cosmonauts: L-R: Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev, and Denis Matveev.

A typical crew rotation on ISS is 4-6 months, but Dubrov and Vande Hei pulled a double shift because Russia decided to launch a pair of “space tourists” for a short stay in October. Crews usually go up and back on the same spacecraft. Dubrov and Vande Hei arrived on Soyuz MS-18. The tourists flew up on Soyuz MS-19 with Shkaplerov in the commander’s seat. They needed the Soyuz MS-18 seats that had been assigned to Dubrov and Vande Hei for the trip home two weeks later. That meant Dubrov and Vande Hei had to wait until the end of Shkaplerov’s tour and return with him on Soyuz MS-19.

Consequently, Dubrov and Vande Hei will have been in space for 355 days by the time they set foot back on Earth on March 30. Vande Hei said he was well aware this could happen before he launched and was looking forward to the extended duration. The 355 days is a new U.S. record for continuous duration in space, surpassing Scott Kelly’s 340 days in 2015-2016. Dubrov is not setting a record for Russia. Four Russian cosmonauts have been in space longer than 355 days. The record is held by Valeriy Polyakov at 438 days.

Expedition 66, L-R: Raja Chari (U.S.), Thomas Marshburn (U.S.), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Kayla Barron (U.S.), Mark Vande Hei (U.S.) Credit: NASA

Also onboard the ISS right now are three Americans and a German who arrived on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer — who is celebrating his birthday today — comprise “Crew-3” and will return to Earth in late April after their replacements arrive on Crew-4.

All seven of the current ISS crew members welcomed their new colleagues with hugs and smiles as the hatches opened between the space station and the Soyuz at 5:48 pm ET. The Soyuz MS-21 crew members are dressed in yellow.

Soyuz MS-21 crew (in yellow) comes aboard the ISS, March 18, 2022. Screengrab.  Some observers point out that the yellow flightsuits are trimmed in blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, but others, including Roscosmos officials, explain they are the colors of Baumann Moscow State Technical University, which all three cosmonauts attended.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended geopolitical relationships on Earth and a great deal of cooperation in space. The ISS is a sanctuary of peace, at least so far, despite threats from Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos. His incendiary tweets have rattled many in the space community, but apparently not NASA or the European Space Agency. Both have released statements and officials have answered some questions during various press conferences, all with the same message: everything is fine on ISS. Operations continue normally. All the partners, including the Russians at their mission control center, are focused on continued safe operation of the facility according to NASA and ESA.  Canada and Japan, the other two partners, do not appear to have issued public statements, but none of their astronauts are currently on ISS or scheduled to go there in the near future.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former Congressman and Senator who flew on the U.S. space shuttle in 1985 when he was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a fervent advocate of U.S.-Russian space cooperation. He often references the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as an example of how the U.S. and Soviet Union were able to work together in space during the Cold War.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Today, he downplayed Rogozin’s increasingly offensive tweets in an interview with the Associated Press. Rogozin “spouts off every now and then” but “he’s worked with us,” Nelson said.

Today’s launch and the warm welcome to three new Russian crewmates on the ISS certainly fit Nelson’s narrative, even as ESA suspended cooperation with Russia on their flagship Mars exploration mission, ExoMars, because of the sanctions ESA’s member states have imposed on Russia.

As NASA ISS program manager Joel Montalbano and NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders have said, the ISS was built as an interdependent facility. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to separate the Russian Orbital Segment and the U.S. Orbital Segment (which includes modules from ESA and Japan and a robotic arm from Canada). The Russian segment relies on the U.S. segment for electrical power and communications and the U.S. segment relies on the Russian segment for propulsion to raise the ISS’s orbit and to avoid space debris.

There is only one ISS. NASA is working with commercial companies to build commercial space stations to succeed it, but they will not be ready for many years.

The ISS is a busy place, not just with NASA and Roscosmos crews who conduct an array of scientific experiments, but the space tourism business is accelerating. In addition to the October space tourist flight, Russia flew another in December. The first U.S. all-commercial flight to ISS, Axiom-1, is currently scheduled for April 3.  It is not difficult to understand why the partners are eager to keep it going despite Russia’s unprovoked aggression on Earth.

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