French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, second from the right in the front row, and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, to his left, current commander of the International Space Station, with members of the current crew in an image from November 2021.
The four American, two Russian and one German astronauts currently living together 400 kilometers above Earth on the International Space Station (ISS) may become the most unexpected collateral victims of the war in Ukraine.
“If the US blocks cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled exit from orbit or a fall on the US or Europe?” Dimitri Rogozin, director of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, threatened.
The US and Russia have been cooperating for almost 25 years on this space outpost, in which the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan also participate. Yesterday, US President Joe Biden announced a new series of sanctions on Russia that, among other things, “will degrade its aerospace industry, including the space program.”
The Russian response through the mouth of the head of Roscosmos —journalist, philosopher, expert in the theory of war, former ambassador to NATO and former vice president of the country— has been incendiary: “There is also the option that a 500-ton structure falls on India and Chinese. Does [President Biden] want to threaten them with such a prospect?” Rogozin wrote on Twitter.
The tension between Russia, the US and the EU may have important consequences for space exploration. In 2014, following the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, NASA issued a directive to all of its employees to suspend all contact with their Russian counterparts. The agency banned all of its employees from traveling to Russia. Rogozin was punished by being banned from entering the US The EU did the same and paralyzed all his accounts in the countries of the union.
Following Rogozin’s statements, NASA has assured that cooperation with Russia on the ISS will remain intact. “We continue to work with all our international partners, including the Russian agency Roscosmos, on the safe operation of the ISS,” a spokesperson for the US space agency explained to EL PAÍS. The new sanctions “continue to allow cooperation between the US and Russia on the ISS and no changes are expected in this regard”, he added.
Until now, the US and Russia had left the space station out of political combat and economic sanctions. The clearest precedent was the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Despite US sanctions, the ISS continued to operate normally. American astronauts continued to fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and operations on the ISS were not affected.
In November 2021, Russia shattered one of its satellites by firing a missile at it. The remains of the artifact, dangerous as shrapnel, seriously threatened the ISS crew, who had to wake up in an emergency. The US formally complained to Russia about this maneuver, but relations were not broken.
But the ISS has an uncertain future. Last year, Russia warned that if the United States does not lift its sanctions – especially electronic components for ships and satellites that hamper the progress of Russian missions – it will not renew its commitment to collaborate on the ISS in 2025. The United States wants to continue with the project at least until 2030 and probably beyond.
The war in Ukraine can profoundly affect the US, Russian and European space programs. Until a few years ago, the US could only send astronauts into space aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But since 2020 this country already has an alternative: the private ships of Space X, the company of billionaire Elon Musk, in which European astronauts also buy a place.