Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is straining the U.S.-Russia International Space Station partnership seemingly to a breaking point. Now, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin are duking it out in what is an unusually terse Twitter battle.
Floating in low Earth orbit, the International Space Station has been, for the most part, a safe space for Americans and Russians to work together, but this precarious relationship has reached a new low point. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, beginning on February 24, sparked a flurry of international sanctions, prompting Russia halt Soyuz launches from French Guiana and stop selling rocket engines to U.S. companies. Rogozin even went so far as to tweet that U.S. sanctions might compel Russia to let the ISS crash onto American or European soil.
On March 3, British satellite company OneWeb suspended its launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in response to the invasion. One day earlier, engineers at the launch pad removed American and Japanese flags from the Russian-built Soyuz rocket, much to the delight of Rogozin.
“The launchers at Baikonur decided that without the flags of some countries, our rocket would look more beautiful,” Rogozin, a staunch Putin loyalist and frequent online shit-stirrer, wrote in a tweet (all translations from Russian to English provided by Google Translate).
“Dimon, without those flags and the foreign exchange they bring in, your space program won’t be worth a damn,” tweeted Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut known for spending a full year on the ISS, on Sunday in response. “Maybe you can find a job at McDonald’s if McDonald’s still exists in Russia.” (In fact, McDonald’s announced on Tuesday that it would pause all its operations in Russia.)
Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia in charge of the defense industry, is clearly in support of the invasion and is fully willing to use Roscosmos as a platform to promote the ongoing conflict. “Baikonur is in solidarity with the actions of our Armed Forces, supports our guys who are fulfilling their patriotic and military duty,” said Rogozin in a tweet that features photos of pro-invasion iconography being added to Russian space-related assets.
Kelly, who’s fluent in Russian—a result of his astronaut training—has been vocal in his outrage over the invasion, providing Russian translations of English news articles and other information over Twitter (examples here and here). Free press is currently non-existent in Russia, with the Kremlin feeding propaganda and misinformation directly to state-run media outlets.
Rogozin’s hostility toward the international collaboration took another dark turn on March 5, with the publication of a Roscosmos-produced video in which Russian cosmonauts are depicted leaving the ISS. After sarcastically waving goodbye, the cosmonauts depart aboard the detached Russian segment, leaving NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei behind (Vande Hei is currently on the ISS). This is not the first time that Rogozin has threatened to leave the ISS.
“It’s just unimaginable that the Russian space program would leave a person behind in space that they were responsible for bringing home. I don’t see that happening,” Kelly told CNN. The invasion of Ukraine has revised his expectations, saying: “Even though I just said it was unimaginable, maybe they might leave a person behind. I don’t know.”
Rogozin, clearly frustrated by Kelly’s biting tweets, issued an angry response that he has since taken down, in which he said: “Get off, you moron! Otherwise the death of the ISS will be on your conscience.”
“Dimon, why did you delete this tweet?,” replied Kelly. “Don’t want everyone to see what a child you really are?” Dimon, by the way, is the familiar name for Dmitry, and Kelly is using this cutesy name to get under Rogozin’s skin—and it’s working.
That same day, Rogozin blocked Kelly on Twitter, prompting the retired NASA astronaut to tweet: “What, Dimon, does it hurt your eyes?” Kelly told CNN that it’s the “first Twitter argument I’ve ever had.”
Where the Twitter dispute goes from here is hard to tell, but neither Kelly or Rogozin seem willing to back down. Fair to say, the U.S-Russia relationship will never be the same again. The question now is what will happen to the ISS, as the orbital outpost isn’t scheduled for retirement until the end of the decade.