US-Russian tensions don’t affect International Space Station astronauts

ATLANTA (AP) — Tensions in eastern Ukraine and heightened Western fears of a Russian invasion are not expected to have a significant impact on the International Space Station or U.S.-Russian cooperation in space, a the former head of the National Space Council told The Associated Press.

Four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut are currently on the space station.

Scott Pace, who served as executive secretary of the Space Council under President Donald Trump and is now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the space station “has been largely isolated” from political events.

“It is possible to imagine a break with Russia that would endanger the space station, but it would be at the level of a breakdown in diplomatic relations,” Pace said. “It would be something that would be a last resort, so I don’t really see that happening unless there’s a wider military confrontation.”

The space station, an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries, including Canada, several European countries, Japan, Russia and the United States, was launched in 1998 and has grown into a complex almost as long as a football field, with eight miles of electrical wiring, an acre of solar panels and three high-tech labs.

This marked two decades of people continuously living and working in orbit in 2020.

The first crew – American Bill Shepherd and Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko – took off from Kazakhstan on October 31, 2000. Two days later, they opened the doors of the space station and joined their hands in a gesture of unity.

The three astronauts got along well but the tension sometimes rose with the two mission controls, in Houston and outside of Moscow.

Shepherd, during a NASA roundtable with his teammates, said he was so frustrated with the “conflicting orders” that he insisted they come up with a single plan.

Russia kept station crews back and forth after NASA’s Columbia disaster in 2003 and after the space shuttles retired in 2011.

In 2020, SpaceX ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA and became the first private company to launch Americans to the space station.

“It’s a way to undertake joint efforts, but that power is not infinite, and land conflicts on Earth can still get in the way,” Pace said. “Space is increasingly essential to our daily lives and it’s something everyone should be aware of.”

Earlier this year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, said he wanted to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or accidents involving Russia and Western allies, reducing space and cyber threats. , as well as setting limits on missile deployments and other arms control initiatives.

Concerns have been raised in Congress about the impact the conflict over Ukraine could have on the International Space Station.

Lawmakers specifically exempted space cooperation from previous sanctions and can be expected to make similar arguments against the targeting as the administration considers its next steps on Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Russia began evacuating its embassy in Kyiv and Ukraine urged its citizens to leave Russia.

Russian lawmakers have authorized President Vladimir Putin to use military force outside his country, and President Joe Biden and European leaders have responded by imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs and banks.

Both leaders have signaled that an even bigger confrontation could occur.

Putin has yet to unleash the force of 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, while Biden has held back on tougher sanctions that could cause economic turmoil for Russia, but said they would continue if there were further attacks.

The sanctions underscored the urgency felt by Western nations to mitigate the conflict.

AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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