Is Russia Threatening to Leave a U.S. Astronaut Behind in Space?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused ripple effects around the world almost half a month after it occurred.

This has led to a rift between the West and Russia in space. According to Space News, 16 commercial launches are planned to take place on the Russian Soyuz rocket during the next two years. As a result, many companies are suffering from these stranded payloads, including OneWeb, the European Commission, and the Swedish government.

ExoMars, a joint Europe-Russia probe scheduled to launch this year, will also be delayed many years and may even be canceled, according to sources.

As a result, speculation has grown about the fate of the International Space Station, which has 15 partner nations and is the symbol of Russian-NASA cooperation in space. Several news reports have been published in recent days mentioning Russian threats to abandon NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei on the space station.

A Soyuz capsule set to land in Kazakhstan at the end of this month is scheduled to return Vande Hei to Earth. Several NASA officials should be present to welcome him back home.

This video appears to have come from a publication linked to the Kremlin, RIA Novosti, which was published more than a week ago. While Roscosmos TV provided footage for the video, the channel acknowledged that it was only a joke.

While it is an unwise joke given the current tensions on Earth, it is pertinent to understand that Russia’s decision to share footage a week ago does not mean it wants to abandon Vande Hei. As of right now, the situation has not changed in any way since the video was posted.

So far, NASA officials have said that operations with Russian colleagues working on the space station have been proceeding well. One NASA source confirmed Friday that operations have not changed. The manager of NASA’s International Space Program, Joel Montalbano, is set to speak Monday at a news conference about upcoming spacewalks. Expect similar remarks.

Furthermore, Vande Hei could not be abandoned. The International Space Station currently hosts three other Americans, Raja Chari, Kayla Barron, and Thomas Marshburn. Matthias Maurer, a German astronaut, is also part of the team. It is NASA’s responsibility to transport Vande Hei to and from the station, so the astronaut can return home in a safe way whenever the agency wishes.

ISS’s status is subject to change, as it is with any partnership.

This could happen quite quickly. Russian aggression in Ukraine has prompted harsh sanctions from the West. It’s impossible for anyone to predict whether Vladimir Putin will end Russia’s space station participation. A domestic audience might perceive him as “strong” if he appears to be stranding a NASA astronaut in space.

There is, however, no indication this will occur. In the event of trouble in the ISS partnership, Russia probably will recall its cosmonaut’s training in the United States, or NASA will recall its flight controllers in Moscow and astronauts in Star City, or some combination thereof. But no such thing has happened yet.

The United States and Russia, as explained in Ars’ article on the International Space Station on Monday, are best served by continuing to fly the station; and in the near term at least both sides need each other’s cooperation to accomplish this mission.

This doesn’t mean that the chief of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, will not keep making bombastic and nationalistic statements on Twitter. Since the war began, he has been tweeting with the banner “Russian Lives Matter.”

However, Rogozin’s comments appear disconnected from the reality of the situation. Someone who says that refusal to launch the OneWeb satellites will cost $8 billion and denying the West Russian rocket engines will cost $4 billion is not speaking rationally. It is also likely such a scenario would be a net benefit to the West since Northrop Grumman will now purchase its Antares rockets from US suppliers.

It seems that Rogozin is appealing to his domestic audience. A Western audience would certainly find his behavior disgusting. It does not seem representative of the many people in the Russian space program who work hard to keep flying a 20-year-old station, by far the largest project humans have ever assembled in orbit.

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