This week, as Russia unleashed a violent assault on Ukraine, the director of Russia’s space agency went on a rant. After President Joe Biden announced on Thursday new sanctions against Russia that would, among other effects, “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” Dmitry Rogozin responded with a series of tweets about the International Space Station: “Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS? If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and a fall on the United States or Europe? … The ISS doesn’t fly over Russia, so the risks are all yours.”
At first glance, the statement seems, well, pretty unhinged. Particularly because Russia is one of the nations that operates the ISS, and has two of its own cosmonauts on board. (And, although the station’s orbital path falls mostly outside of Russia, the ISS does pass over a small part of its southern border.)
Before the specter of a space station crashing in middle America starts to seem too real, let me reassure you: The International Space Station is not about to come down. Russia can’t press a button and drop it out of its orbit 260 miles above Earth. Rogozin was referring to the fact that the space station currently relies on Russian propulsion systems to maintain its altitude in orbit, and was apparently threatening to withdraw those services if sanctions affected the ISS—and doing it in the most thuggish way possible. Nice space station you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it.
Rogozin’s American counterpart, the NASA administrator Bill Nelson, did not respond directly. The agency said in a statement: “NASA continues working with all our international partners”—including Roscosmos, the Russian space agency—“for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station.”
For decades, officials in both countries have stuck to the same lines about the value of collaboration in space: Past conflicts and competitions aside, projects such as the ISS are bastions of international cooperation, an emblem of our better selves, especially during times of crisis. Our efforts in space are, no pun intended, above all that. That framing doesn’t always hold. In 2014, when the U.S. and other countries issued punitive measures against Russia for its takeover of Crimea, questions about the welfare of the ISS effort came up. Then, as now, there were inflammatory comments thrown around from figures like Rogozin, who is himself under U.S. sanctions for his role in the invasion of the Crimean peninsula. And then, as now, there were assurances from NASA that the two nations’ work on the ISS would be just fine. (Rogozin appeared to calm down after NASA said Thursday night that a new U.S. ban on technology exports to Russia wouldn’t extend to ISS operations.)
What happens next, beyond this moment of déjà vu, is less certain. Considering how Biden and other leaders are describing their current diplomatic relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is unclear how long space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency, which includes 22 nations, can keep their working relationships with Russia untarnished by the fallout. The idea that earthly matters can’t touch something as lofty as space travel is only a platitude, not a certainty. And surely for some spacefaring nations, there must come a point when compartmentalization doesn’t seem like the simple solution it once was. In some ways, NASA has already been disentangling itself from its ties to Russia. But several international space missions this year currently rely on Russian partnership, and both American and European officials will have to reexamine those efforts and decide whether they’ve reached that point.
Americans and Russians have worked together in space since the 1970s, not long after the United States landed men on the moon and its space race with the Soviet Union drew to a close. In the summer of 1975, an Apollo module and a Soyuz capsule docked together in orbit, the first international astronaut mission in history and a show of détente between the superpowers. Astronauts and cosmonauts continued to meet in space in the 1990s, taking turns spending time in the American space shuttles and Mir, the Russian space station. The U.S. eventually asked Russia to join its efforts alongside the European and Japanese space agencies to build a brand-new space station, and together they started assembling the ISS piece by piece in orbit in 1998.
The ISS is divided into American and Russian segments, and it relies on both sides to function: While NASA supplies electricity to the entire station, Roscosmos provides the spacecraft that attach to the ISS and periodically nudge the whole thing into a higher altitude—the capabilities to which Rogozin referred in his provocative posts. These spacecraft are supposed to help decommission the ISS, when that time comes, by pushing it into a careful plunge through Earth’s atmosphere that ends over the ocean. If Russia were to suddenly jump ship, NASA and its other partners on the ISS could come up with an emergency solution before the station was in danger or became a danger itself. NASA is already exploring other propulsion options; an American spacecraft currently docked to the ISS is scheduled to test some orbit-boosting moves in April.
The U.S. is less tangled up with Russia in the space realm than it was the last time Russia went after one of its neighbors. In 2014, with the American space shuttles in retirement, the Soyuz was the only ride to the ISS, giving Russia a nice bit of leverage; when the U.S. banned cooperation with Russia on space activities outside the ISS, instructing companies to stop using Russian rocket engines, Rogozin joked that NASA could use a trampoline to reach the station. Today, however, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, provides transportation for NASA astronauts and their European colleagues. Where before the U.S. paid Russia millions of dollars for a seat, there are now talks of the countries swapping seats between their vehicles. Rogozin recently announced that a Russian cosmonaut will fly on SpaceX this fall, but NASA wouldn’t confirm that, saying the two agencies were still working out a potential arrangement. Such an arrangement seems much shakier now.
This is the discomfort that spacefaring nations will face as Russia presses ahead in Ukraine: walking the thin line between appearing to punish Russia and still holding outer space as a realm apart. Biden this week described the state of U.S.-Russia relations as a “complete rupture”—why would an American company then give a Russian cosmonaut a ride to space? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that he has been “broadly in favor of continuing artistic and scientific collaboration” with Russia despite geopolitical conflict, “but in the current circumstances it’s hard to see how even those can continue as normal.” So what does that posture mean for the two European satellites scheduled to launch on a Russian vehicle from a French territory in April? Russia is already backing away; Rogozin said yesterday that, in response to sanctions from the European Union, Roscosmos would stop working with its European partners at the spaceport in French Guiana and recall Russian personnel stationed there.
And what of Europe’s next mission to Mars? A rover is expected to launch from Russia’s spaceport in Kazakhstan in September, and, if it doesn’t leave in a certain window, will have to wait two years before getting another shot at reaching the red planet. On Friday, the director general of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, said in a tweet that “we will take any decisions needed, but for now, support for our missions & colleagues continues until further notice.”
Meanwhile, the ISS is still chugging along. (In fact, a Russian spaceship gave the station its latest gentle boost after Rogozin’s menacing warnings.) The U.S. intends to keep operations going through 2030. Russia has signaled a potential earlier exit than that, saying it would assemble its own home in orbit, but “Russia’s civil space program is in tatters, to the point where Putin has slashed its funding because they’re doing so terribly,” Victoria Samson, a military-space expert at the Secure World Foundation, an organization focused on responsible uses of outer space, told me. “There is time to improve relations between all the ISS partners, in theory,” Samson said. But the story of the ISS, established as a symbol of global cooperation, could end on a sour note.
On Thursday, as the fighting in Ukraine intensified, NASA published a blog post summarizing the events of that day on the ISS. Two American astronauts began preparations for spacewalks scheduled for next month. A German astronaut tried out VR goggles while spinning on the exercise bike to test whether they made the workout more enjoyable. (Space-station residents work out every day to ward off the effects of weightlessness on their muscles and bones.) One Russian cosmonaut worked on a plasma-physics experiment, while another brainstormed ways to maximize space for future workout sessions. (Can’t overstate the importance of exercising in space.) Business as usual! the report seemed to scream. No mention of any awkward chats about the dire situation on Earth that has ensnared their home countries. The astronauts living there are, literally, floating above it all, but they are still human—surely they must have acknowledged, in some way, what was happening down on Earth.