Blazing across the skies some 250 miles overhead, the International Space Station is a symbol of international cooperation and has largely remained above the realm of geopolitics—both literally and metaphorically—since it was built. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked condemnation from around the world and the winds of the growing geopolitical storm are even reaching into space.
The ISS was originally made possible through a collaborative effort between the U.S. and Russia in the late 1990s—among the first signs of a peaceful partnership in the post-Cold War era. The orbiting space lab is now maintained by a coalition of 15 countries, but the U.S. and Russia still lead operations: Roscosmos is responsible for the propulsion elements of the station while NASA oversees life support and electrical systems.
Since launching an invasion in Ukraine, Russia has been increasingly isolated by the U.S. and its allies—a rift reflected by growing tensions around the decades-long ISS partnership. Days after the invasion began, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin reacted to U.S. sanctions against Russia’s space sector with a fiery tweet suggesting the ISS could be allowed to drift from orbit and plummet to Earth in an act of retaliation.
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” Rogozin tweeted in Russian, translated by Google. “There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours.”
Such a scenario is plausible. Russian cosmonauts are responsible for operating the propulsion engine of the space station, ensuring it can dodge hazardous debris and maintain altitude. Without regular engine bursts, the ISS would plunge into Earth’s atmosphere, causing the football field-sized space craft to erupt in flames, break apart, and rain flaming debris across the globe. But it’s not the first time Rogozin has publicly fired off brazen remarks. In 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, prompting similar sanctions by the U.S. At the time, NASA’s space shuttle program had been retired for several years and U.S. astronauts were completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS. In response, Rogozin had famously tweeted: “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”
Rogozin’s recent tweets were followed by a bizarre social media video posted by a Russian state news outlet that depicted Russian cosmonauts detaching their module from the space station and leaving behind NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is scheduled to return home from the ISS with two cosmonauts aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on March 30. Rogozin reposted the video on Twitter, sparking a heated exchange with retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. Kelly, who spent nearly a year aboard the ISS and has worked closely with Russians throughout his career, wrote in a Washington Post editorial that he was “deeply pained” by the video and felt compelled to speak out. Russian state media called the video a joke, but it still raised concerns that Roscosmos was considering stranding Vande Hei, who has now spent almost a year in space—the longest single spaceflight of any U.S. astronaut.
Despite these hostilities, business aboard the ISS has continued as usual. Five cosmonauts, one ESA astronaut, and three NASA astronauts currently live and work in close cooperation together. On March 15, NASA astronauts Kayla Barron and Raja Chari completed the first spacewalk of the year, preparing and installing upgrades for a new solar array system. Days later, the crew was joined by three additional cosmonauts charged with a six-month mission aboard the station. A group of private astronauts who each paid $55 million to visit the ISS for a week are scheduled to arrive during the first week of April.
For the time being, Roscosmos and NASA have no immediate plans to sever ties. NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano held a briefing on Monday, March 14, stating that ISS operations have not changed since the invasion of Ukraine. He also asserted that Vande Hei would fly home on a Soyuz spacecraft according to schedule.
“The teams continue to work together. Are they aware of what’s going on on Earth? Absolutely. But the teams are professional. The astronauts and cosmonauts are some of the most professional groups you’ve ever seen,” Montalbano said. “This is what they’ve been trained to do, and they’re up there doing that job.”