When Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the whole world was watching. But another, much smaller audience was watching, too: the seven crew members onboard the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting hundreds of kilometers above the chaos below.
Across more than two decades of continuous operations, the ISS has been a steady beacon of hope for peaceful international collaboration. The massive space habitat is the product of a remarkable partnership among five space agencies (including NASA and Russia’s National Space Agency, Roscosmos) representing 15 participating countries. Over the years, scientific study and international friendships have flourished onboard the ISS, prompting some to petition for the project to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
But some fear Russia’s latest attack could throw that cooperation into jeopardy. In times of geopolitical upheaval on Earth, what happens to the ISS?
According to former ISS astronauts, nationality usually takes a back seat to the more practical matters of living and working in space. “During training, you spend a lot of time together, and so you form these deep friendships,” says Leroy Chiao, who flew on the 10th expedition to the ISS in 2004.
Rick Mastracchio, a retired NASA engineer who flew on the 38th and 39th expeditions to the ISS, echoes that sentiment. “You’re there to do a very specific job, and you’re well trained,” he says. Regardless of one’s homeland or political views, “you need to get along because you’re [part of] a team.”
Chiao says that the time he spent with his cosmonaut colleagues gave him a measure of insight into the Russian perspective on geopolitics. From Russia’s viewpoint, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO could seems like a serious threat to national security. How would the U.S. have reacted, he wonders, if Mexico and Canada had signed the Warsaw Pact before the fall of the Soviet Union? “That would make us pretty edgy, too. So, I understand where Russia’s coming from,” he says, even though he firmly disagrees with the nation’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tensions between Russia and the U.S. also ran unexpectedly high when Mastracchio was onboard the ISS. In March 2014, not long into his orbital sojourn, Russia annexed Crimea in a political move that the U.S. condemned as a “violation of international law.”
“I won’t say it affected the atmosphere, but there was some discussion,” Mastracchio says. He mentions what he recalls as the distress of one of his Russian crewmates in particular, who was purportedly fearful for his family in a nearby region of Ukraine. For Mastracchio, the memory serves as a reminder that no culture is a political monolith. “You’re representing your country from the terms of the space agencies, but you’re not representing the political aspect of it,” he says. “It’s somewhat uncomfortable when your homeland does something that maybe you’re not proud of.”
So far, the U.S. and its NATO allies have pursued a policy of retaliatory sanctions targeting Russia’s economy and political leadership. Outlining the policy during a White House address, President Joe Biden noted that the sanctions will “degrade [Russia’s] aerospace industry, including their space program.”
How exactly this may affect life on the ISS remains unclear. The seven crew members currently onboard the habitat are four NASA astronauts, one German astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA) and two Russian cosmonauts. Whatever their personal feelings, presumably the crew will continue normal operations in a “business as usual” approach. At least, that is the plan according to NASA.
“NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station,” the agency wrote in an emailed statement. “The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation.”
Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment. But in a series of tweets on Thursday afternoon, Roscosmos’s director general Dmitry Rogozin mocked the sanctions as foolhardy, adding that “if [the U.S.] blocks cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled descent out of orbit and a fall on the United States or Europe?” Despite its threatening implications, Rogozin’s statement is, in some respects, reflective of simple facts: Russia’s Progress resupply spacecraft are currently responsible for periodically boosting the space station’s altitude, which decreases over time because of atmospheric drag. (A U.S.-built Cygnus cargo spacecraft presently docked at the station is scheduled to perform a test boost in April to demonstrate an independent capability to maintain the ISS’s altitude.)
Such comments are not terribly out of character for Rogozin, a Putin appointee. “He’s a bit of, you know, a personality,” says Asif Siddiqi, a historian at Fordham University, who specializes in Russian space activities.
When the U.S. enacted earlier rounds of sanctions after the Crimean annexation, Rogozin notoriously responded by suggesting that American astronauts could find their way to the ISS “with a trampoline.” (At the time, the U.S. was wholly dependent on sending crews to the ISS via launches of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Now SpaceX rockets and modules serve as U.S. crew transports, and Boeing is set to soon provide an additional domestic launch option.) Rogozin again raised hackles last year with statements implying that in 2018 NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor drilled a tiny hole in a Soyuz vessel for purposes of sabotage. In an article by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS last year, a Russian space official again raised hackles with accusations that NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor drilled a tiny hole in a Soyuz vessel so that she could return to Earth early. NASA has said it does not consider these allegations credible and that it stands by Auñón-Chancellor.
Although these periods of tension have strained administrative relations between Roscosmos and NASA in the past, they have never truly disrupted life on the ISS. During the height of the Crimean conflict, for example, a leaked internal memo instructed NASA employees to cease communications with their Russian colleagues. “However, there’s a little clause in that thing that says actual ISS operations will continue just as before,” Siddiqi says. He suspects a similar memo may be making the rounds now.
Even if a major ISS partner does decide to withdraw from the project, the transition may take months or even years to fully disentangle. “It’s not a simple off switch,” Siddiqi says. But unless the current political situation changes course, he does not see a future for U.S. and Russian collaboration in space beyond the ISS’s decommissioning, currently planned for 2031. NASA is already looking ahead to its ambitious Artemis program, which will partner with ESA, Japan’s space agency and the Canadian Space Agency to build an orbiting lunar outpost to support astronauts’ long-term return to the moon’s surface. Meanwhile Roscosmos has pledged to join forces with China in order to build a moon base of their own. The international schism in spaceflight seems set to grow—with the cooperation epitomized by the ISS only diminishing.
“It’s clear that this is a relationship that will not continue past a certain point,” Siddiqi says. “I can’t see it recovering from this.”