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NASA astronauts plan spacewalk despite rising tensions between U.S. and Russia

The spacewalk Tuesday morning is the first of several events this month at the space station that seem unaffected by bitterness on Earth over the invasion of Ukraine

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei in 2017. Currently aboard the International Space Station, he's scheduled to return to Earth aboard a Russian spacecraft March 30. (NASA/AP)

It’s going to be a busy few weeks on the International Space Station.

Tuesday morning, a pair of NASA astronauts are scheduled to step outside the station for a spacewalk. Then next week, Russia is flying three more cosmonauts to the station. By the end of the month, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and two Russian colleagues are to fly back to earth on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. And a few hours later, a group of private astronauts is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX rocket for a week-long visit to the station.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened tensions between the United States and Russia to levels not seen since the Cold War. But that has not affected the countries’ partnership in space, which has endured for more than two decades — at least for now.

“All these activities have continued for 20 years, and nothing has changed in the last three weeks,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager, said at a briefing Monday. “We’re aware of what’s going on, but we are able to do our jobs to continue operations.”

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He dismissed any notion that Vande Hei would not fly home with his Russian colleagues as scheduled. “I can tell you for sure Mark is coming home on that Soyuz,” he said. “We are in communication with our Russian colleagues. There’s no fuzz on that.”

The Russian and American segments of the station depend on each other. The United States provides power to the Russian side; Russia’s Progress vehicle uses its thrusters to keep the station in the correct orbit or to dodge debris. While NASA’s Cygnus spacecraft could also boost the station, it would require the Russian thrusters to keep it in the correct orientation, or attitude, Montalbano said.

“It’s a team. We work together,” he said. “There’s not really an operation that you can just separate and go your own way, because of the interdependency that was designed from the beginning.”

Still, several NASA advisers have urged the agency to be thinking about contingency plans that would be needed in a worst-case scenario. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has said that since Russia is responsible for boosting the station, it could force it to come crashing down. He has threatened to consider dissolving the partnership, saying Russia would “closely monitor the actions of our American partners and, if they continue to be hostile, we will return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station.”

And a state-run news agency published an animated video showing Russian cosmonauts abandoning NASA astronauts in space.

Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year on the space station with a Russian colleague, has been particularly vocal, calling out Rogozin on Twitter. He also said he would return a Russian medal he received for his spaceflight to Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council: “Please give it to a Russian mother whose son dies in this unjust war.”

For now, Russia has committed to being a part of the ISS through 2024. NASA is planning to extend the life of the station to 2030. If there were any kind of formal dissolution of the partnership between Russia and the United States, it would need to go before what is known as the Multilateral Coordination Board, the international coalition that governs the space station.

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“If the Russians want to leave, it’s going to be up to them,” said Scott Pace, who is head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and served as the executive secretary of the National Space Council in the Trump administration. “I don’t see the partners or the MCB kicking the Russians out. The Russians would have to decide on their own that they want to leave. And so far, they haven’t.”

Still, he said, NASA and the White House should be “thinking about backups and alternatives,” because the partnership is “not invulnerable.”

That was a view also expressed by Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle program manager at NASA who chairs a NASA advisory board.

“The old flight director in me says you ought to be prepared for any contingency,” he said. “I rest assured that the right people are thinking about the right things in case unfortunate circumstances unfold. But I sure hope they don't.”

Asked whether NASA was preparing for a dissolution of the partnership, Montalbano did not provide a direct answer, saying only that “at this time there’s no indication from my Russian partners that they want to do anything different. So we are planning to continue operations as we are today.”

That includes getting Vande Hei home safely. Montalbano said there would be a team of about 20 on-site to take Vande Hei home after the Russian spacecraft lands in Kazakhstan on March 30. They will fly him home on a NASA airplane.

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Later that day, a group of private citizens, who have paid $55 million each, are to launch to the space station on a mission arranged by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that is working to build a commercial space station that could replace the ISS.

After that, NASA is preparing to send up another crew of astronauts and bring another crew home in what amounts to an extraordinarily busy time on the station. And for now, everything is operating normally, despite the war on the ground.

“The teams continue to work together,” Montalbano said. “Are they aware of what’s going on on Earth? Absolutely. But the teams are professional. The astronauts and cosmonauts are some of the most professional groups you’ve ever seen. … And there’s really no tensions with the team. This is what they’ve been trained to do, and they’re up there doing that job.”