NASA: International Space Station ‘largely isolated’ from tensions over Ukraine

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Even as tensions between the two nations rise over the Ukraine crisis, the long-standing partnership between the US and Russia in running the International Space Station (ISS) looks to be on stable ground.

NASA is continuing in discussions with Roscosmos, its Russian equivalent, on a new “crew exchange” arrangement seven weeks after the Biden administration vowed to keep the ISS running until 2030. According to the US space agency, the two erstwhile space competitors would frequently share trips to the station on one other’s spacecraft under such an arrangement.

The research platform, which is approximately the size of a football field and orbits 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, is presently home to a crew of four Americans, two Russians, and a German astronaut who are all working in microgravity side by side.

Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut, went to the outpost in March 2021 on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and is scheduled to return to Earth on March 30 with cosmonaut teammates Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov in a Soyuz.

In an email to Reuters, NASA spokesman Dan Huot said, “Ongoing station activities continue, including efforts to carry people to the orbiting outpost and return them safely to Earth.” Roscosmos did not reply to a request for comment from Reuters right away.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War competition that fueled the initial U.S.-Soviet space race, the ISS was created in part as a foreign policy project to strengthen U.S.-Russian ties.

However, relations between the United States and other countries are strained.

According to the website SpacePolicyOnline.com, since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, relations between the two countries have deteriorated, prompting Congress to prohibit new government contracts with U.S. companies using Russian rocket engineers for national security launches after 2022.

None of the penalties imposed by the United States in response to Russia’s military advances into eastern Ukraine this week targeted the country’s space program.

TEAMWORK VS. SPACE RACE

Following the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011, the US started paying Roscosmos to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station in Soyuz capsules. Even though it continued to hitch rides on Soyuz, NASA commenced launching its own crew members from U.S. soil in 2020.

The new deal would let additional NASA astronauts to fly on Soyuz in return for Russian cosmonauts sharing rides on SpaceX missions with American astronauts for free. Three Russian cosmonauts are currently training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in preparation for such an agreement, according to NASA.

As the resupply of the station continues, the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the 11-nation European Space Agency are independently hashing out parameters for prolonging ISS operations beyond its present expiration date of 2024.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo ship, which was launched for NASA on Saturday, arrived at the orbiting laboratory on Monday with 8,300 pounds of food, fuel, and equipment.

The Cygnus was launched into orbit atop an Antares rocket, whose first stage is primarily developed and produced in Ukraine and powered by two Russian-made RD-181 engines, underscoring the extent to which US and Russian space interests are intertwined.

The primary engine of Atlas V rockets flown by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, is another Russian engine.

Even before the Ukraine crisis erupted in recent weeks, U.S.-Russian space cooperation was shattered in mid-November when Russia fired an unannounced missile at one of its own obsolete spy satellites, causing a debris field in low-Earth orbit and posing a hazard to the space station.

After that, all seven members of the ISS crew, including two cosmonauts, were obliged to seek refuge in their docked spacecraft for roughly two hours in case a swift escape was required.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called the anti-satellite test “reckless” at the time. According to the Washington Post, he said that Russia’s space agency was “probably just as shocked as we are” by the test.

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