In response to Russian cosmonauts promoting the ongoing attack on Ukraine, NASA issued a rare statement calling out its Russian counterpart for forcing politics on board the International Space Station.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed strain on its three-decade-long ISS partnership with the United States, and Roscosmos’ recent stunt hasn’t helped, prompting this response from NASA:
NASA strongly rebukes Russia using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes.
Although the statement isn’t available online, it was originally provided as a response to a media question, which the space agency later shared with reporters, as a NASA spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. That NASA didn’t issue the response on its own or post the statement on its website or through social media channels is telling.
NASA is clearly trying to maintain its ISS partnership with Roscosmos, and while this does mark the first time NASA has spoken out against the war in Ukraine, the space agency seemingly doesn’t want to broadcast this message beyond emails to journalists. This is NASA’s first stance against Russian propaganda in regards to Ukraine, although it is not a super strong one.
The statement began circulating just three days after the Russian space agency posted photos on its official Telegram channel of three cosmonauts holding up the flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Russia recently claimed to have taken control of the two regions, which it considers to be Russian-backed, breakaway regions from Ukraine, and therefore their alleged capture was celebrated by Russia. “We celebrate both on Earth and in space,” Roscosmos wrote on Telegram on Monday. “This is a long-awaited day that residents of the occupied areas of the Luhansk region have been waiting for for eight years.”
Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin has responded to the NASA statement. “We will do in the Russian segment everything what we consider necessary and useful,” Rogozin wrote on Telegram. “And I advise Western partners to cancel their stupid sanctions.” Rogozin has been aggressively threatening to pull out of the ISS in protest of sanctions imposed against Russia by the U.S., Canada, and the European Union.
Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, also chimed in, tweeting: “It is unacceptable that the ISS becomes a platform to play out the political or humanitarian crises happening on the ground.” To which he added: “The purpose of the ISS is to conduct research & prepare us for deeper exploration. It must remain a symbol of peace and inspiration.”
In February, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the international sanctions imposed against Russia would also impact its space program, stating that sanctions would “degrade their aerospace industry.” That same month, the European Space Agency also released a statement condemning the war in Ukraine, while ending its cooperation with Russia on three lunar missions. Meanwhile, NASA seemed keen to keep things diplomatic with its Russian counterpart. “NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station,” a NASA spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email in May.
Even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nature of the partnership between NASA and Roscosmos had already shifted. NASA is no longer reliant on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to fly its astronauts to the ISS. Instead, the space agency has partnered with private space companies SpaceX and Boeing, the former of which is now providing regular transportation services to the orbital outpost. Prior to that, and as a result of the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, Russia held a monopoly over crewed transportation to the space station; Roscosmos hiked up the price of a seat on Soyuz from $21.8 million in 2008 to $81 million by 2018.
But still, both parties are needed to maintain the space station, even if NASA astronauts can now get there without the help of Russia, which probably explains NASA’s diplomatic approach. Russia’s ISS deal with NASA and its international partners ends in 2024, and Russia has not signed on for a renewal just yet. The ISS itself is set to retire in 2030, at which time it will plunge into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean as it bids farewell to space. Until then, NASA and Roscosmos will likely be forced to work together in space, even as tensions between the two space agencies mounts on Earth.