Is the war between Russia and Ukraine threatening the safety – and future -- of the International Space Station and the crew members from both countries currently working on it? If the conflict breaks out on the ISS, who is responsible for resolving it on the U.S. side? The Space Force? The astronauts themselves? Elon Musk? What about for the Russian cosmonauts? What does this mean for NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is scheduled to return to Earth in a Soyuz capsule on March 30?
“Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS? If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?”
In a series of tweets, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos and former deputy prime minister of Russia, stated Russia’s case – pointing out that the physical stability of the ISS is maintained by thrusters on the Russian side mounted on the Progress cargo spacecraft. Rogozin seems to have conveniently forgotten that recent misfirings of those thrusters put the entire station in a dangerous spin last year. For that reason, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft that arrived at the station in February will be tested as an alternative to the Russian boosters. Speaking of alternatives …
“So Elon answered: SpaceX”
In answer to Rogozin’s question about “who will save the ISS,” Elon Musk responded with a logo of his company and then the name for anyone who couldn’t figure out his response. SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the ISS since 2012 and humans since 2020. If that wasn’t enough to raise Rogozin’s ire, Musk has activated Starlink Internet service in Ukraine and plans to send more 12 inch dishes and user terminals … although he doesn’t say how.
What about the Space Force? On Oct. 28, 2020, Col. Michael “Hopper” Hopkins, the commander of the SpaceX Crew-1 headed to the space station on Nov. 14, volunteered to join the Space Force, making him the first NASA astronaut to join the new military branch. While the ISS is not a Space Force base nor a U.S. military outpost, a majority of U.S. crew members are current or former military. And, while Col. Hopkins is no longer stationed on the ISS, his joining the Space Force is more than symbolic. Many who see the ISS as a symbol of what humans can accomplish when cooperating with other countries objected to the Space Force involvement.
SpaceX is not the only private company involved with the ISS. U.S.-based launch vehicle developer Launcher has relocated 10 engineers and their families from a Ukraine-based office to Sofia, Bulgaria – as of this writing, six employees elected to remain in Ukraine to continue working on the Launcher Light small launch vehicle. On the other side, Roscosmos also uses non-government contractors – and they are undoubtedly severely impacted by the sanctions implemented as a result of the Russian invasion.
Could this conflict on Earth bring an early end to the ISS? NASA just extended operation of ISS from its planned end date of 2024 to 2030, and Russia seemed to be in favor of and cooperating with that move. What will happen now? That obviously depends on the outcome and/or resolution of the conflict.
Elon Musk’s offer is undoubtedly welcome to the people of Ukraine and those stationed on the ISS, but they’re not a permanent solution. This space problem shows just how far we are from the Federation on Star Trek. Perhaps a viewing of a few episodes and movies by the leaders of the space agencies would help … especially the ones with Picard in charge rather than Kirk.