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Despite Ukraine invasion, NASA continues its space station partnership with Russia

Officials say they are monitoring the situation with Ukraine ahead of the return of astronaut Mark Vande Hei on a Russian spacecraft

From left, Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei during a training session last year in Star City, Russia, ahead of their trip to the International Space Station. (Andrey Shelepin/GCTC/Roscosmos/Reuters)

When he returns to Earth on March 30 aboard a Russian spacecraft alongside two Russian cosmonauts, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will have spent more time in space on a single mission than any other American, a total of 355 consecutive days. That’s more than Christina Koch’s 328-day mission, and more than Scott Kelly’s 340 days.

Inside the space agency, it is being celebrated as another milestone for one of NASA’s most successful programs, the International Space Station, which for more than two decades has been a symbol of exploration and international collaboration.

But now, as Russia continues its bloody invasion of Ukraine, the partnership has come under more strain than it has endured in years, and it is unclear how the countries will continue to work together in space, as tensions between the Cold War adversaries mount on the ground.

Last week, after President Biden said that the sanctions against Russia would “degrade” its space program, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, fired off tweets asking if the United States wanted to ruin the cooperation between the countries in running the space station. He reminded Biden that Russia is responsible for firing the thrusters that keep the station in the correct orbit, and threatened that without Russia, the station could come crashing down.

NASA’s response has been far less incendiary. It said it is continuing its normal spaceflight operations in partnership with Roscosmos “for ongoing safe operations.” It said that “no changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”

In a call with reporters Monday, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said: “We are not getting any indications at a working level that our counterparts are not committed to ongoing operation on the International Space Station. We as a team are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago.”

She said NASA and its Russian counterparts “are still talking together. We're still doing training together. We're still working together. Obviously, we understand the global situation and where it is, but as a joint team, these teams are operating together.”

She added that, “obviously we need to continue to monitor the situation. … We've operated in these kinds of situations before and both sides always operated very professionally and understand the importance of this fantastic mission and continuing to have peaceful relations between the two countries in space.”

Tensions with Russia are complicating International Space Station partnership

NASA continues to work to fly Russian cosmonauts on American spacecraft, and American astronauts fly on the Russia Soyuz spacecraft, like the one that is expected to bring Vande Hei home in a few weeks, the NASA spokesperson said.

The spacecraft is expected to land in Kazakhstan on the morning of March 30, and if NASA is conducting normal operations, as expected, it would have a team in place, including a flight doctor, ready to whisk Vande Hei home. Typically, NASA tries to return its astronauts to Houston as quickly as possible and has a helicopter ready near the landing site to take the astronaut to a nearby airport, from which the NASA team flies back to the United States on a NASA jet.

During his time on the station, Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel and an Iraq War veteran, has said he was “proud to be part of this team,” and helped support his Russian colleagues during a spacewalk.

For years, Americans and Russians have worked side by side in space and on the ground. After the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, NASA was dependent on Russia to fly its astronauts to and from the station. That dependence bound the space agencies even more closely together.

While in Kazakhstan, “we effectively operate as one team,” Kenny Todd, NASA’s former deputy space station program manager, said during a NASA podcast in 2020. “Whether it’s European astronauts, or NASA astronauts or Russian cosmonauts ... everybody is acting as one. And again, it’s a wonderful partnership, and you really get to see it play out when you’re out in the field like that.”

But more recently, the geopolitical strains between the countries have begun to fray the relationship.

In 2019, then NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was forced to rescind an invitation that he had offered Rogozin to visit the United States after some key senators blasted the move. Rogozin had been placed on a sanctions list in 2014 by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine when he was deputy prime minister. After the sanctions were put in place, Rogozin said Russia should stop flying NASA’s astronauts and that the United States should instead use “a trampoline” to get to space.

While Rogozin is known for his bluster, “that was significant,” said Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the Soyuz. “It was the first time somebody in the space agency made some kind of reference to threatening the partnership.”

Still, he said that “cooler heads have got to prevail. It would be bad for Russia, too, to lose or compromise the ISS in any way.”

Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, who served as the executive secretary of the National Space Council in the Trump administration, told The Washington Post late last year that the partnership was delicate. The station “might be a high-water mark for U.S.-Russia relations. But it’s not invulnerable. … If we were to start over today, we would not have the Russians as partners on the station. That was done in another, more hopeful, era.”

Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator, has tried to keep an open dialogue with Rogozin and Roscosmos. But he strongly condemned Russia after it blew up a dead satellite last year, scattering hundreds of pieces of debris in orbit that threatened the space station. He called it “reckless and dangerous,” and said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.”

Still, the Biden administration recently announced that despite the tensions with Russia, it wanted to keep its partnership going and extend the station’s life span from 2024 to 2030.

“As more and more nations are active in space, it’s more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space,” Nelson said at the time.

After the ISS, however, NASA isn’t looking to partner with Russia. Instead, it is working with private-sector companies to develop commercial space stations.