More than two months into the war in Ukraine, NASA and Russia’s space agency continue to work together toward flying a cosmonaut on an American spacecraft and jointly operating the International Space Station, despite the fiery rhetoric from Russia’s top space official.
During a recent call with reporters, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said mission controls in Moscow and Houston continue to work together, and the American and European astronauts have remained friendly with Russian cosmonauts in space.
Nelson said he has confidence that the relationship will continue because it has previously weathered past international conflicts.
"Look at the history," Nelson said. "In the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, 1975, an American spacecraft and a Soviet spacecraft rendezvoused and got, and those crews became fast friends forever."
John Horack holds the Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace at the Ohio State University and has been in the space business since the late 80s. He says NASA has several reasons for continuing to operate business as usual on the ISS.
"This mutual dependency has been strong. If we want to go fast, maybe we go alone. But if we want to go in a sustainable way, I think it's very important for us to figure out how to go together," Horack said. "Space is a place where we can figure things out as opposed to fight things out."
Americans and Russians have continuously lived and worked in space for nearly 22 years.
"That's a lot to give up," Horack said of the research and learning in low-Earth orbit.
"Space has been and always, I think, will be a bridge, and it can be a bridge over a very deep chasm," Horack said. "Now, that bridge is also fragile, but there are precious few places where every human being on the planet shares something with every other human being on the planet. That might be the water we drink, the air we breathe in the night sky we look at."
Nelson said NASA and the Russian government are working to secure an agreement to fly a Russian cosmonaut on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon under the Crew-5 mission. That agreement still needs to be approved by the U.S. State Department.
The message of international collaboration is at odds with the rest of the U.S. government, which has placed sanctions on Russia, drawing blistering remarks from Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos. The Russian official has threatened to strand NASA Astronaut Mark Vande Hei in space and pull out of the International Space Station. So far, his threats have been empty and more inflammatory rhetoric than actual policy.
Horack said statements from Rogozin are less reflective than those involved in daily space operations. In his experience, Russians believe in the benefit of peaceful exploration and understand it’s part of modern life, not just for one country but for everyone.
"The relationships between the human beings … can be very different than the relationships between the governments, even though ideally, I guess the governments are supposed to respect and represent the will of the people," Horack said. "They perhaps don't always do that."
According to the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission, more than 5.5 million Ukrainians have fled to other countries. At least 1,842 civilians have died and thousands injured since the war started on Feb. 24.
History has a habit of repeating itself. Despite the atrocities of World War II, the U.S. now counts Germany and Japan as allies. Horack said spaceflight is an opportunity to lay the groundwork for positive change, no matter how bad things on Earth might be.
Nelson echoed this sentiment in April, ahead of the Crew-4 astronaut launch.
"Despite the horrors that we are seeing with eyes daily on television of what's happening in Ukraine as a result of political decisions that are being made by the president of Russia, despite all of that, despite a war going on in Ukraine, I see that professional relationship with astronauts and cosmonauts and the ground teams and the two respective mission controls," Nelson said. "I see that continuing."
NASA and Russia are already in agreement to continue the space station through 2024. NASA is seeking to extend that to 2030.
When asked if Russia’s war on Ukraine would affect requests for ISS funding beyond 2024, Nelson said from "the U.S. standpoint, no."
"We will have the appropriations that we need. We have the good housekeeping seal of approval from the White House for an extension of 2030," Nelson said. "We expect so many of our international partners will be embracing this over the near future."