Russia: Tensions with Ukraine explained
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Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine could result in Russian cosmonauts being asked to pull out of the ISS, dealing a major blow to the multinational collaborative project, of which Russia was a key member. Throughout the history of space exploration and the tensions between the US and Russia, the ISS has largely remained unaffected by conflicts on the ground.
Even through key flashpoint events like the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, the astronauts and cosmonauts cooperated onboard the ISS.
Scott Hubbard, former director of the US space agency NASA’s Ames Research Center noted: “When you work with the Russians, and you develop a bond of trust and they’ve had a few vodkas together – that bond stays there, regardless of high-level politics.”
“The scientists and engineers just carry on with what they are dedicated to.”
Despite this spirit of friendly cooperation, it is not the astronauts, nor the scientists that decide whether to work together or not, but rather the parent governments, like Russia and the US.
Roger Launius, an adviser to the space industry as part of Launius Historical Services said: “Neither the decision-makers at NASA or at the Russian space agency nor at the other partners of the space station want the cooperation to end.”
However, Mr Launius warned that increasing geopolitical tensions could determine the fate of the space station.
He said: “If NATO mobilises in response to the Russians’ behaviour in Ukraine, the cards will be reshuffled.
“Then we will probably no longer experience cooperation in space travel.”
John Logsdon from the Space Policy Institute shared similar concerns.
He said; “Could invading Ukraine break down the invisible wall around the ‘ISS’ if the US imposes sanctions that anger Russia enough to threaten to withdraw from the station – yes, that could very well happen.”
One thing Russian Mr Putin could do is to withdraw their two permanent cosmonauts on the ISS and return to earth.
Mr Logsdon said: “The most drastic scenario, however, would be the decoupling of the Russian modules from the rest of the station.”
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The first two components of the ISS come from the Russian modules “Zarya” and “Zvezda”, which use their engines to raise the orbit of the ISS from time to time when the upper layers of the atmosphere begin slowing down the station.
Mr Logsdon warned that such a scenario could be meant that “the ISS could survive for a short time”.
But, he added: “After a few months, the space station’s orbit would be so unstable that it would enter Earth’s atmosphere.”
The decoupling of the modules would be a self-destructive act on Moscow’s side, as these modules cannot survive independently without being attached to a space station.
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg
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