Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jeopardizes the future of the International Space Station

NASA is aiming to expand its astronaut launches from U.S. soil. Boeing is set for a test launch this week of its small spacecraft to the International Space Station. Russia and America have long been partners on the space station, but the invasion of Ukraine has led to new tensions and questions about the future. Miles O'Brien has our report about the rhetoric versus the reality.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boeing is set for a test launch of its small spacecraft to the International Space Station this Thursday, part of its efforts to increase manned space launches from U.S. soil.

    The space station has long been an international collaboration, and Russia and America have long been partners. But the invasion on of Ukraine has led to new tensions and questions about the future.

    Miles O'Brien has our report about the rhetoric vs. the reality.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    More than two months since Russia launched its war against Ukraine, and it seems like business as usual aboard the International Space Station, despite the turmoil 250 miles below.

  • Person:

    First through the hatch is Denis Matveev.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The coming and going rituals of hugs, smiles and ceremony are intact.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov handed over command to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn at the end of March, with some poignant words.

  • Anton Shkaplerov, Russian Cosmonaut:

    People have problem on Earth. On orbit, we are one crew. And I think ISS is like symbol of the friendship and cooperations.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The camaraderie between U.S. and Russian spacefarers is more than lip service.

  • Scott Kelly, Former NASA Astronaut:

    You know, when you're on the space station, it's like, there's Earth with all the other humans, and then we're here. And this is our community, our world right now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was twice a commander of the space station, logging nearly a year on board during his last stint in 2015 and '16.

  • Scott Kelly:

    And what's important to us is not necessarily what's important to those people down there, because we're kind of relying on each other for emotional, psychological support, help, friendship, literally our lives.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is on another kind of mission. Dmitry Rogozin, a prominent nationalist, is using social media to deliver a series of menacing, even nuclear threats aimed at his western partners in the International Space Station.

    In early March, he tweeted a video of workers covering up partner flags on a Soyuz rocket, writing: "The rocket would look more beautiful."

    Scott Kelly fired back on his Twitter feed: "Your space program won't be worth a damn," he wrote. "Maybe you can find a job at McDonald's, if McDonald's still exists in Russia.

  • Scott Kelly:

    The reason I did it in the way I did it is because I wanted to get his attention. And it worked.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And then he fires back pretty quickly?

  • Scott Kelly:

    Yeah, he called me a moron. He said, if the space station is deorbited or something, or if the program is canceled, it's going to be my fault.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A few days later, Rogozin orchestrated the release of a spoof video depicting cosmonauts closing the hatch to the Russian modules and drifting away from the station, leaving us astronaut Mark Vande Hei behind, home alone.

    And Rogozin has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the space station because of Western sanctions aimed at Russia. But NASA leaders are not taking the bait.

    Kathy Lueders is the associate administrator in charge of human spaceflight.

  • Kathryn Lueders, Associate Administrator, Space Operations Mission Directorate:

    Our flight controllers are still talking together. Our teams are still talking together. We're still doing training together. We're still working together.

    It would be a sad day for international operations if we can't continue to peacefully operate in space.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan have been doing that for the better part of thirty years.

    It was an ironic twist for Cold War space race adversaries. But in the early 1990s, Congress was balking at the cost of what was then called Space Station Freedom. And the Clinton administration wanted to keep Russian rocket scientists employed, for fear they might sell their services to the likes of North Korea.

  • Anatoly Zak, RussianSpaceWeb.com:

    It was essentially a merger between two human spaceflight programs in two countries.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Anatoly Zak is publisher and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com. After the U.S. won the race to put humans on the moon, the Russians focused on long-duration missions on a series of space stations culminating with the Mir.

  • Anatoly Zak:

    Russian space program was looking down black hole, complete abyss, because there was no money to build the next space station after Mir at that time. Suddenly, from nowhere almost, these two very complex projects were kind of merged together. And Russians benefited far, far more than NASA benefited from that agreement.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The International Space Station was designed in a manner that makes the partners interdependent. The Russian modules have the crucial thrusters to maintain the station's desired altitude and attitude and avoid collisions, while solar arrays on the U.S. side produce almost all the electricity.

  • Wayne Hale, NASA Shuttle Program Manager:

    It would be risky for the life of the station. Neither side would really be able to survive very well without the other.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Wayne Hale is a former space shuttle program manager now on the NASA Advisory Council. The agency is working on contingency plans in case the Russians hastily bow out, but it's complicated.

  • Wayne Hale:

    It would be a real technological reach. But there are teams off studying how to keep it going right now. So, it probably would not bode well. It would certainly put a challenge to the system, but it doesn't mean that we would end our space station program immediately.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A divorce may not be practical, even if truly desired.

    And so the partnership endures, to the chagrin of some.

    Homer Hickam, Former NASA Engineer and Manager: All kinds of sanctions have been applied by the United States and the Western governments against Russia. But the International Space Station just sails on.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Author Homer Hickam is a former NASA engineer and manager who helped negotiate the memorandum of understanding that guides the partnership.

    He says its time to reevaluate the arrangement and pull the plug on the friendly photo-ops.

  • Homer Hickam:

    I just don't think its good optics right now to show American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts hugging and playing with their food and all that kind of thing, and really recommended that they avoid those types of optics, because, after all, right now, the Russian government is engaging in a hideous war against its neighbor, Ukraine, and killing men, women and children right before our eyes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Up until now, the unlikely partnership in space that met with so much skepticism at the outset has succeeded beyond most expectations.

    Leroy Chiao was station commander in 2004 and 05.

  • Leroy Chiao, Former NASA Astronaut:

    It's pretty amazing, even now, looking back, that all these countries who were World War II enemies, Cold War enemies, I mean, sworn to destroy each other, came together and built this most audacious space construction project ever tried. And it went off so well, and it continues to operate so well.

  • Scott Kelly:

    If we lose this, our ability to work peace peacefully in space with the Russians, what do we have left that keeps us together? It's only bad things. And this is the one good thing we have left.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The space station agreement expires in 2024. NASA is hoping to keep it in orbit until 2030.

    In less bombastic moments, Dmitry Rogozin says Russia has made its decision and will notify its partners a year in advance.

  • Person:

    And liftoff.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So it appears this fraught partnership will fly on for now, high above the fray.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien.

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