War of words over Ukraine complicates US astronaut’s return journey from space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — American astronaut Mark Vande Hei has spent nearly a year in space, but faces what may be his most challenging mission yet: bringing a Russian capsule back to Earth in the midst of growing tensions between countries.

NASA insists Vande Hei’s return plans at the end of the month remain unchanged, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to canceled launches, broken contracts and an escalation of war. words by the intransigent head of the Russian Space Agency. Many fear that Dmitry Rogozin could jeopardize decades of peaceful partnership off-planet, including on the International Space Station.

Vande Hei – who broke the US record for a single 340-day spaceflight on Tuesday – is due to leave with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for landing in Kazakhstan on March 30. The astronaut will then have logged 355 days in space, setting a new American record. The world record of 438 continuous days in space belongs to Russia.

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the American record holder until Tuesday, is among those clashing with Rogozin, a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin. Enraged by what is happening in Ukraine, Kelly returned his Russian Medal for Space Exploration to the Russian Embassy in Washington.

Despite the deadly conflict here, Kelly believes the two sides “can hold together” in space.

“We need an example that two countries that historically haven’t been on the friendliest of terms can still work somewhere peacefully. And that somewhere is the International Space Station. That’s why we have to fight to keep it,” Kelly told The Associated Press.

NASA wants to keep the space station operating until 2030, as do the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, while the Russians have not committed beyond the original end date of around 2024.

The United States and Russia are the main operators of the orbital outpost, which has been continuously occupied for 21 years. Until SpaceX began launching astronauts in 2020, Americans regularly hitchhiked on Russian Soyuz capsules for tens of millions of dollars per seat. The US and Russian space agencies are still working on a long-term barter system in which a Russian would launch on a SpaceX capsule starting this fall and an American would fly on the Soyuz. This would help ensure a presence of US and Russian stations at all times.

Vande Hei, 55, a retired army colonel, moved into the space station last April, launching on a Soyuz from Kazakhstan with Pyotr Dubrov and another Russian. He and Dubrov stayed twice as long as usual to host a Russian film crew that visited in October.

As the situation escalated 420 kilometers below last month, Vande Hei admitted he was avoiding conversations about Ukraine with Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov, their Russian commander. Three other Russians will take off from Kazakhstan on Friday to replace them.

“We haven’t talked about it too much. I’m not sure we really want to go,” Vande Hei told a television interviewer in mid-February.

Space station operations continue as always — in orbit and on Earth, according to NASA.

“It would be a sad day for international operations if we couldn’t continue to operate peacefully in space,” said NASA manned flight chief Kathy Lueders, who noted that it would be “very difficult” to go it alone.

To mark Tuesday’s milestone, NASA took to Twitter to collect questions for videotaped answers, and some asked if Vande Hei could move on to an American homecoming. SpaceX is taking three wealthy businessmen and their ex-escort astronauts to the space station in late March for a brief visit. Then in mid-April, SpaceX will deliver four astronauts to NASA before bringing back four who had been on board since November.

NASA and SpaceX officials decline to speculate on the possibility of making a seat available. They say a NASA plane and a small team will be on hand in Kazakhstan, as usual, to fly Vande Hei back to Houston.

Former NASA astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, whose father was born in Ukraine, admits the situation is difficult.

“We sanction Russia. Companies are going out of business in Russia. But you still have the US government – ​​the space agency – doing business with the Russians,” she said. “You can’t press a button and separate the two” sides of the space station.

In addition to threatening to pull out of the space station and jettison it over the United States, Europe or elsewhere, Rogozin covered the flags of other countries on a Soyuz rocket awaiting liftoff with Internet satellites at the start. of the month. The launch was canceled after the client, London-based OneWeb, refused its requests not to use the satellites for military purposes and the British government cut off its financial support.

The European Space Agency is also in shock. After missing a 2020 launch deadline for its Mars rover — a joint Euro-Russian effort — the project was on track for September liftoff from Kazakhstan. Now it is very likely to be extinct until 2024, the next opportunity for Earth and Mars to be properly aligned. And Russia withdrew its personnel from the French launch site in South America, suspending Soyuz launches of European satellites.

All of this is on top of the Russian government’s anti-satellite missile test in November which added countless debris to the debris already surrounding Earth and put the four Americans, two Russians and a German on the space station on high alert for days.

Jeffrey Manber, now with the private company Voyager Space, helped forge ties between the United States and Russia in the mid-1990s, with the launch of the first element of the space station in 1998. He considers the fore- post as “one of the last barriers to collaboration”. between the two countries. But, he added, “there is no turning back if the partnership ends and the result is a premature end to the ISS program.”

Regardless of how things play out at the space station, George Washington University professor emeritus John Logsdon expects this to mark the end of large-scale space cooperation between Russia and the West. .

“Russia has already moved towards China, and the current situation will probably accelerate this movement,” he said.

While Vande Hei has remained silent on Twitter, Kelly and others have moved into high gear, taking offense at Rogozin’s threats.

Elon Musk’s private SpaceX attacked Rogozin after saying Russia would stop supplying rocket engines to US companies – Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance – adding that they could use brooms to get to orbit.

During a launch last week, a SpaceX official replied, “It’s time to let the American broom fly and hear the sounds of freedom.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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