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US Astronaut’s ISS Return, Courtesy of Russia, Hangs in Balance: NASA

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei looks at Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on February 4, 2022, as Russia’s Soyuz capsule is docked just outside. Hei is slated to share a ride back from the ISS aboard the Soyuz capsule later this month, despite tensions over the war in Ukraine, NASA said on Monday. Credit: NASA, via Flickr/Public Domain

US astronaut Mark Vande Hei is slated to share a ride back from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule later this month, despite tensions over the war in Ukraine, NASA said on Monday.

Russia-US cooperation aboard the orbital research outpost, currently home to four Americans and two Russians from the European Space Agency, remains free of tension.

“We both need each other to operate the International Space Station,” Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s ISS program, said.

Sanctions could “destroy” Russia-US ISS teamwork

The longstanding Russia-US collaboration in space was called into question last month when Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, suggested US sanctions imposed against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine could “destroy” ISS teamwork.

When US President Joe Biden announced high-tech export restrictions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government on February 24, he declared they were designed to “degrade” Russia’s aerospace industry, including its space program.

A week later, Russia retaliated by announcing it would stop supplying or servicing Russian-made rocket engines used by two American aerospace companies doing business with NASA.

In another move, Russia ceased joint ISS research with Germany and forced the cancellation of a satellite launch that a British broadband company had planned to conduct from Kazakhstan. Roscosmos also suspended its cooperation with European launch operations at the European Spaceport in French Guiana.

ISS “interdependency” remains firmly intact

When asked whether escalating geopolitical tensions over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine might spill over to undermine morale or Russia-US cooperation on the space station, Montalbano insisted ISS “interdependency” remains firmly intact.

“When you’re in space, there’s no borders. You don’t see country lines or state lines,” Montalbano told reporters. “The teams continue to work together. Are they aware of what’s going on on Earth? Absolutely. But the teams are professional. They’ve trained to do a job, and they’re going to do that job.”

Caught in the middle of Russia-US tensions

Hei, who flew to the orbital outpost aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched in April, is due to return to Kazakhstan on March 30 in a different Soyuz craft with cosmonaut peers Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.

Roscosmos recently confirmed that “Mark Vande Hei is coming home March 30 with Anton and Pyotr, period,” Montalbano said.

After a record-breaking 355 days in orbit, Vande Hei will be greeted in Kazakhstan by a team of about 20 NASA personnel. The new three-member team replacing the trio aboard the ISS is expected to arrive on March 18, as planned.

New Russia-US ISS space partnerships possible

Roscosmos is still in talks with NASA over a new “crew exchange” deal, which would pave the way for routine flight shares to the space station on each other’s spacecraft, Montalbano said.

In 2011, NASA began paying to fly its astronauts to the ISS aboard Soyuz after the US space shuttle program ended that same year. The shuttle program only resumed launches from US soil aboard SpaceX rockets over the past two years, but none of those crews have included Russian astronauts.

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