I spent nearly a year beginning in March 2015 living onboard the International Space Station with the Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko — a partnership that would have been very unlikely when we were younger. As a U.S. Navy fighter pilot during the Cold War, serving in the region between northwest Russia and Scandinavia, I might have been trying to kill one of Misha’s fellow cosmonauts, and he me, had hostilities led to aerial combat: He was flying MiGs in the region around the same time. Instead, in 2010 and 2011, I commanded Expedition 26 aboard the space station, and that cosmonaut, Dmitri Kondratyev, was one of my crewmates.
In the early 1990s, our countries’ space agencies were willing to work together to ease Cold War tensions, and so the United States and Russia agreed to embark on a shared space station. To me, it has always been one of the great achievements of our nations that we came together to build and operate an orbiting station as a peaceful cooperation, and I was privileged to serve there.
As an astronaut, I worked closely with Russians and other Eastern Europeans for decades. I lived in Russia as NASA’s director of operations in Star City, where cosmonauts and astronauts from many nations train and work together. As a result, I speak Russian and have come to know and appreciate Eastern European history and culture. Needless to say, it has been painful to watch the unwarranted, bloody invasion of Ukraine unfold. In 2½ weeks, hundreds of Ukrainian civilians — men, women, children, the elderly and babies — have died and hundreds more have been injured because of this horrific act of war on their sovereign nation. Nearly 3 million Ukrainians have had to flee their homes and all they own to save their lives. Families are separated as nonmilitant men stay behind to save their country and democracy.
Through my wife, Amiko, I have family members who are Ukrainian Americans. Because Russian language and culture have been prominent in Ukraine since the Soviet era, they grew up speaking Russian and feeling connected to Russian culture. Since the outbreak of hostilities, they have had to deal with two traumas at once: Seeing the country they still consider a homeland being attacked and fearing for their family and friends in Ukraine, while also experiencing hateful remarks at home in the United States for being perceived as Russian. I am concerned for them, and all my Russian friends around the world, who may also bear the burden of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal actions.
But I am also deeply pained by the Russian space agency’s recent threats against the space station program to which I and so many others have devoted our lives. Last month, the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, threatened to let the space station de-orbit and crash into the United States (Russia is responsible for the rocket reboosts that keep the station at its proper altitude, though NASA spacecraft could take over this responsibility if necessary). More troublingly, last week Rogozin tweeted a strange video portraying Russian cosmonauts separating the Russian segment and flying away from the space station after waving goodbye to American astronaut Mark Vande Hei. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to bring Vande Hei back to Earth on March 30; the video seems to threaten to leave him behind, an unthinkable violation of the trust built between our two countries in space over decades. I was appalled, so I called him out strongly on Twitter in a rapidly escalating back-and-forth until he ultimately blocked me.
Forty-seven years ago, before most Americans were born, an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit. A hatch opened between them, and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and NASA astronaut Tom Stafford came together to shake hands. Their handshake was a historic moment that brought our two countries one step closer to the end of the Cold War. Now those hostilities are being reignited. The people of Ukraine are paying the price for Putin’s aggression, and our peaceful cooperation in space may as well. I also fear for the Russian people and the effect that sanctions will have on their lives. I have many friends in Russia, some in the space program and others not, and they have different opinions on this war. There are those who believe that the war is the criminal act of one man; the others — well, they have been brainwashed by a state-controlled media led by a master propagandist.
The International Space Station is a great symbol of cooperation between formerly warring countries. But it is also a real place where people live, work and form unbreakable friendships.
In the summer of 2015, Gennady Padalka, Kornienko and I huddled together in our dark and cold Soyuz as a defunct satellite hurtled toward us at 35,000 mph. We knew we might die that day. If we had, it would have been with the shared belief that what we were doing had meaning. Everyone who has ever lived on the space station — 241 people from 19 countries — has risked their life to carry out peaceful exploration and research. There is a phenomenon called the Overview Effect: People who have seen the planet from space without political borders witness the fragility of the atmosphere and experience the oneness we seem to share on this orbiting utopia flying through space. We are left with the sense that we are in this thing called humanity, all of us, together. I believe it.
Misha and I often joked that if we want our countries to get along, we should send our leaders to the space station, where they must cooperate and rely on each other for their lives. Maybe we need only recognize that we already do.
Putin must end his unlawful and immoral assault on the Ukrainian people, and Americans and Russians must work together to maintain our commitment to our shared humanity and the International Space Station. There is too much to be lost if we don’t.