Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine is being felt around the world — and now, even above it.
Russia’s top space official, Dmitry Rogozin, has tweeted that the sanctions imposed on his country by the U.S and Europe are “unacceptable.” He said that cooperation with the U.S. and it allies on the International Space Station may no longer be possible.
Rogozin added that the sanctions are intended “to kill the Russian economy, plunge our people into despair and bring our country to its knees.” Normal relations with the U.S. and Europe, he said, would only be possible with the lifting of the “illegal” sanctions — something that is highly unlikely to happen in the near future.
Rogozin, space experts have said, has a habit of popping off. But Andrew Parton, president of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, said that the notion of Americans, Europeans and Russians working together in space — which they were doing only a few weeks ago — now “seems awkward.”
“We’re almost at war with them,” Parton said.
The Russians were pioneer partners, along with the U.S., the Europeans Space Agency, Canada and Japan, in building the ISS, the largest man-made structure ever constructed and put into space. It had to be assembled in parts, which took place between 1998 and 2000. The first section of the structure was launched in November 1998, aboard a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodome.
The ISS has been circling the Earth for so long now — it became fully operational in May 2009 with a six-member crew that required two Russian Soyuz “lifeboats” to be docked there at all times — that many Earthlings have pretty much forgotten about it, or don’t think of it much. But it remains a phenomenal vehicle, traveling an eye-popping 17,500 mph at an altitude of some 248 miles above Earth.
Many have argued that the many billions of dollars spent on the ISS could have been better used on Earth. Others say that man was born to explore, and who knows what we’ll find out there one day?
And the ISS has proved valuable. To name a few of its contributions:
• The ability to view Earth from different perspectives has given scientists a better way to find new sources of water and places to grow food.
• Protein crystal growth experiments done aboard the station have given medical science better understanding of diseases such as cancer and muscular dystrophy.
• Astronauts have learned to work in a micro-gravity environment. Human bodies change under such circumstances, and we are now better able to understand how to cope with the challenges we will face as we further explore the cosmos.
• And students the world over have been given a view of life in space and the possibilities of a world outside our own.
But what if Russia quits?
The ISS could survive. Just last week, SpaceX, a private company, launched a NASA astronaut and three paying customers to the ISS. Since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011, the agency has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take our astronauts to the station.
But with commercial space companies revving up, we may be able to eliminate our dependence on the Russians to get us up there.
Russians help guide the ISS, and use their country’s space vehicles to boost the station to its target orbit when it tends to drift lower. These tasks can be taken over, but it will take effort by the rest of the ISS team, and more funding.
The bigger loss, of course, is that yet another tie between major world powers will have been severed. Russian and U.S. diplomats around the world have already been called home. To be sure, Russia must be punished, and punished severely, for its actions in Ukraine. But astronauts and cosmonauts are scientists, and have held themselves above the fray of politics and fraught relationships between their countries. They were able to do so on the most recent return to Earth, in March.
Astronaut Mark Vande Hei worried that he might be left behind because of U.S-Russia tensions, after spending 355 days in space. But the Russians ferried him home safely. Joe Montalbano, NASA’s program manager for the ISS, said that those aboard the station last month were “aware of what’s going on, but they still worked as a team.”
The question is, how long can we remain teammates?
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? Jbernstein@liherald.com.