Space: Off-Planet Détente

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April 9, 2022: There may be serious diplomatic, economic and military tensions between the United States and Russia because of Russian invading Ukraine in February, but off planet, on the ISS (International Space Station) cooperation between Russia and the United States continues as before. The latest crew capsule to return to earth carried two Russians (Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov) and one American; Mark Vande Hei, who had been on the ISS for 355 days. The Soyuz capsule landed as usual, in Central Asia (Kazakhstan) and the flowing day was flown back to the United States aboard a NASA aircraft.

Roscosmos has long provided regular deliveries of supplies and transport of crew to and from the ISS. Russia uses its Soyuz SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles) to put the Russian cargo and passenger capsules into orbit where the final stage of the SLV maneuvers to dock at the ISS to deliver or cargo or passengers. Russia and the United States are the major suppliers of new components to the ISS and use their own SLVs to get these components into orbit.

Despite the tension between Russia and the other nations responsible for operating the ISS, Russia is maintaining its scheduled duties up there. The latest (March 18) Soyuz crew capsule to arrive at the ISS carried three Russians, all wearing yellow and blue (the colors of the Ukrainian flag) flight suits. Russia insisted this had nothing to do with the Ukraine fighting. These three Russians will serve on the ISS for about 30 weeks as part of the seven people who operate the ISS. Most Roscosmos personnel support continued participation in maintaining the ISS until its retirement in 2031. Some Roscosmos personnel also oppose the invasion of Ukraine but expressing that opposition openly is now a felony in Russia and at least 15,000 Russians have been arrested for demonstrating their opposition. The Russian ISS crew members went with their government’s explanation that the colors of the flight suits were a coincidence.

Russia is still threatening to end its participation in the ISS program but so far has not gone beyond threats. Dmitry Rogozin, the current head of Roscosmos, is making the most noise about abandoning the ISS if some of the sanctions are not lifted. Rogozin is a close associate of Russian leader Vlaidmir Putin and has presided over Roscosmos since 2018. Rogozin has not made much of a difference even though he expressed admiration for the American firm SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk. That changed after the invasion of Ukraine when Musk ordered SpaceX to use its Starlink satellite Internet communications system to support the Ukrainian resistance to the Russians. Suddenly Rogozin declared SpaceX and Musk an enemy of Russia. Rogozin did not mention that SpaceX had replaced crucial Russian support for SpaceX and made Russian threats to leave the ISS pointless, which is what Russia is becoming despite, or because of, efforts to restore the Russian empire.

With SpaceX now sending up cargo and crew capsules regularly, the Russian Soyuz no longer has a monopoly on cargo and passenger traffic. Northrup Grumman also has cargo capsules in service. During the 355 days that Mark Vande Hei spent on the ISS, fifteen cargo or crew capsules visited. These included five crew capsules (three Soyuz and two SpaceX) as well as eight cargo capsules (three Russian and five American, including two from Northrop Grumman). While the Soyuz capsule carries three people, the SpaceX capsule carries four in greater comfort and safety.

The next Crew Capsule to arrive at the ISS on April 13th will be a SpaceX Dragon-2 which has been in regular use since 2021. Crew and cargo capsules return with passengers or, for cargo capsules, garbage and other cargo returning to earth.

At that point the ISS will have been continually inhabited since 2000, with the crew of seven normally spending six months up there. Astronaut Vande Hei remained up there for two tours as an experiment to see how longer periods in weightlessness affected humans. The record stay in orbit was by a Russian cosmonaut who spent 455 days aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1994-95. This was the last of eight Russian space stations and the one that remained occupied the longest (4,594 days). The 130-ton Mir was brought down in 2001 after Russia joined the fifteen-nation ISS consortium. The 420-ton ISS has been in orbit since 1998 and occupied for over 11,000 days. The only other active space station is the 23-ton Chinese Tiangong that went up in 2021 and has been occupied for nearly a year by three to six people at a time.

 


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