Ukraine: How Tensions on Earth Have Invaded the Space World

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is floating in a most peculiar way ...
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is floating in a most peculiar way ... Phot by NASA

Despite NASA administrator Bill Nelson’s reassurances on Friday morning that his Russian counterpart Dmitry Rogozin’s recent statements about the United States—including the particularly catchy line that the United States will have to use broomsticks to get to space once Russia stops supplying U.S.-based companies with rocket engines—were just a bunch of saber rattling, NASA is seeing fallout from the wire-taut international tensions between the West and Russia as the brutal war in Ukraine continues.

Although a trio of cosmonauts were sent to the International Space Station without any issue on Friday, the tensions on Earth have rapidly appeared in the space world. Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, has proved to be almost cartoonishly petty, going from threatening to remove Russia from the ISS and drop the space station on the United States or one of our allies to covering up the flags of other countries on a Soyuz rocket that was slated to launch earlier this month.

Then that launch was ultimately canceled when the London-based company, OneWeb, which is partly backed by the British government, opted out after Rogozin demanded guarantees that none of the satellites would be used for military purposes and that the UK divest its stake in the company.

Since then, the Russian space agency head and the agency itself have continued to hint, mostly via social media, that the peaceful vibe that has been a notable hallmark of decades of work aboard the ISS could be shattered. Last week, a video Rogozin shared on Twitter—despite Twitter and most other social media being blocked for average Russians; Rogozin and the Kremlin are still quite busy online—even went so far as to imply that Russia might opt to strand NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei aboard the ISS.

Overall, what has been most surprising about all of this is how unsurprising it actually is. After all, U.S. policy became laser-focused on getting into orbit and then putting boots on the moon at the height of the Cold War, an era when elementary school students were taught to duck and cover just in case the United States or the Soviet Union did happen to haul off and launch some missiles. NASA’s massive chunk of the annual budget was fueled by the drive to stay ahead in the space race, despite all of the Star Trek-esque talk about boldly going where no one had gone before.

But once the Cold War did actually end, space exploration gradually did become a place where even Americans and Russians could learn to be partners and work together—at least, up to a point. Because ever since NASA announced the end of the space shuttle program and plans to rely on Russia for access to the ISS, any tensions with Russia have raised concerns about whether those tensions would filter down into the partnerships built by those working in U.S. and Russian space programs.

Of course, the reality of all of this posturing hasn’t led to any obvious breaches. Rogozin has since clarified that Vande Hei—who broke the previous U.S. spaceflight record on Tuesday is slated to touch down in Kazakhstan on March 30—will indeed be coming home aboard the Soyuz capsule as planned.

Nelson insists that when you get past rhetoric, Roscosmos and NASA are working together peacefully just as they have for years now. “That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us,” Nelson told the Associated Press on Friday. “The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control.”

Plus, ever since the successful SpaceX launch of two astronauts back in 2020, NASA isn’t completely reliant on Russia to tote astronauts to space anymore even if we do still need to buy Russian rocket engines to make it happen. But in spite of this new reality, thanks to Rogozin’s saber rattling and the war itself, it looks like western ties with Roscosmos are likely to continue to fray, with the European Space Agency announcing on Thursday that it has put the ExoMars rover program with Roscosmos on indefinite hold due to Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Time will only tell how those carefully honed bonds between NASA and Roscosmos folks can withstand what’s happening in Ukraine.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray