Three Russians Return from ISS Amid Worsening Terrestrial Relationships

Three Russians Return from ISS Amid Worsening Terrestrial Relationships

The return of three Russian crew members from the International Space Station today as part of an ongoing crew rotation involving U.S., Russian, European and Japanese astronauts underscores again how the ISS partnership is an oasis amidst deteriorating terrestrial relationships. As Russian President Vladmir Putin is poised to annex part of Ukraine and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow advises all U.S. citizens to leave Russia, the routine do-si-do of ISS crews belies the grim geopolitical environment here on Earth.

The Soyuz MS-21 crew of Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsukov landed safely on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 6:57 am EDT (4:57 pm local time at the landing site). NASA TV broadcast the landing as usual, although there was no on-site presence since no U.S. astronauts are on this flight.

Soyuz MS-21 descending under parachute just before landing, September 29, 2022. Screengrab from NASA TV.
Soyuz MS-21 commander Oleg Artemyev, assisted by medical personnel, enjoying his return to planet Earth, September 29, 2022. Screengrab from NASA TV.

Artemyev handed command of ISS over to European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy) yesterday where she, four Americans and two Russians are working shoulder-to-shoulder every day. Cristoforetti is the first European woman to command ISS.

ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on 4-6 month tours of duty for almost 22 years. At least one Russian and one American have always been there.

Artemyev and his crew mates just finished a 195-day stay. Their replacements, NASA’s Frank Rubio and two Russians, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, arrived last week on Soyuz MS-22.

Crew of Soyuz MS-22, which arrived on ISS last week: Frank Rubio (U.S.),  Sergey Prokopyev (Russia) and Dmitry Petelin (Russia). Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Soyuz MS-21 was a rare instance of an all-Russian Soyuz crew since the ISS began operations in November 2000. Usually a NASA astronaut has been among the Soyuz crew members. In this case the United States and Russia had not completed a new “crew-exchange” or “seat swap” deal where Americans fly on Soyuz in exchange for Russians flying on U.S. vehicles instead of NASA paying Russia for crew transportation services. Now that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is available, NASA again can launch astronauts on its own for the first time since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

The new agreement was signed in July enabling Rubio’s flight on Soyuz MS-22. In exchange, Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina will fly on SpaceX’s Crew-5 next week. Delayed by Hurricane Ian, it is currently scheduled for October 5. Kikina is the only woman in the Russian astronaut corps.

Crew-5: Anna Kikina (Russia), Josh Cassada (U.S.), Nicole Mann (U.S.), Koichi Wakata (Japan). Photo credit: NASA

Joining Kikina on Crew-5 are NASA’s Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Koichi Wakata. They will replace ESA’s Cristoforetti and three NASA astronauts, Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins and Bob Hines, the crew of Crew-4.

The regular cadence of crew exchange missions demonstrates that ISS remains a haven for international cooperation despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Americans, Russians, a European and soon a Japanese working together in the very close quarters of the ISS every day perhaps offers a glimmer of hope.

As Cristoforetti told Artemyev during the Change-of-Command ceremony, “with your warmth, with your generosity, with your lightheartedness, I think you have really helped us grow together not only as crew members, as crew mates, but, as you said, as one big space family.”

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (left) takes command of the International Space Station from Oleg Artemyev (right). Screengrab, NASA TV.

The ISS has a Russian segment and a U.S. segment (which includes modules from Europe and Japan and a robotic arm from Canada) that are inextricably linked. NASA and Roscosmos agree that at least one American and one Russian must be on board to operate those maintenance-intensive segments at all times, prompting the need to have one of each nationality on every flight to the ISS in case future flights are grounded. Soyuz MS-21 was an exception.

NASA has a group of employees in Russia to support ISS operations at Mission Control Center-Moscow and NASA astronauts often are there for training. NASA did not immediately reply to a query from as to whether the U.S. embassy’s warning for Americans to leave Russia would affect its operations there. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, NASA has insisted that professional relationships between the space crews and their ground-support personnel in both countries are unchanged.

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