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NASA issues rebuke to Russia for using space station as war propaganda

In a statement, the space agency said it ‘strongly rebukes using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine’

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov pose with a flag of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic at the International Space Station in a photograph released July 4. (Roscosmos via Reuters)

NASA on Thursday issued a rare condemnation of the Russian space agency, its main partner on the International Space Station, after cosmonauts celebrated Russia’s capture of a region of eastern Ukraine.

In a statement, the U.S. space agency said it “strongly rebukes using the International Space Station for political purposes to support [the] war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes.”

On Monday, the Russian space agency posted photos of its three cosmonauts with the flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic — self-proclaimed republics in breakaway regions of Ukraine that are only recognized as independent states by Russia and Syria — and said the capture of the region was “a liberation day to celebrate both on Earth and in space.”

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NASA has gone to great lengths to try to preserve the partnership on the space station, which has endured for more than 20 years. The space agency has highlighted the comity between the astronauts and cosmonauts living side by side in orbit and pledged the partnership would continue to endure.

This year, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said that despite the war and tensions on the ground, 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.”

Last year, after Russia blew up a dead satellite that scattered debris and threatened the station, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, strongly condemned the Russian military, calling it “reckless and dangerous.”

Still, he had gone out of his way to highlight the space station as a peaceful haven and maintain that the war has not thrown the partnership into question.

“The cosmonauts and the astronauts are getting along as usual,” he told CNBC in March.