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The U.S.-Russia space partnership historically has transcended political tension

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tensions between Russia and the United States on Earth may have implications for the two nations' partnerships in space. From WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: In the winter of 2015, an American astronaut on the International Space Station had a unique perspective on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

TERRY VIRTS: We're looking out the window, and there's red flashes. And it's like, boom. And it hit me, we're watching people being killed on Earth.

BYRNE: Astronaut Terry Virts was commanding the orbiting lab, a joint partnership with several nations, including the U.S. and Russia. He and his Russian colleagues, called cosmonauts, looked on at the fighting below. Virts, who is now retired from NASA, recalls despite what was happening on the ground, he and his crewmates were focused on the mission at hand.

BYRNE: Here we are working together. Our goal is just not to die. We're in space. We're just trying to survive.

BYRNE: There are currently seven people on the ISS - four Americans, two Russians and one German. For more than two decades, the station has hosted an international crew that works together despite the geopolitics back on Earth. NASA's Kathy Lueders is the head of the agency's human space program and says so far the two agencies are cooperating, both up there and down here.

KATHY LUEDERS: We're continuing to monitor the situation. But, you know, our control centers are operating nominally together. We've gotten the support we needed.

BYRNE: The head of Russia's space program, Roscosmos, hasn't been as diplomatic. Last week, Dmitry Rogozin questioned the future of the U.S.-Russian partnership in space, halted delivery of U.S. rocket engines and compared American rockets to, quote, "broomsticks." Historically, the U.S.-Russian partnership has transcended political tensions here on Earth. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.'s response may erode that relationship. Roger Handberg is a political scientist at the University of Central Florida who focuses on defense and space policy.

ROGER HANDBERG: One way that they can immediately damage the United States in terms of space station is to say, OK, we're going to take our piece and go home.

BYRNE: The International Space Station is essentially two halves - one operated by Russia and the other maintained by the U.S. The Russian side of the space station is responsible for keeping the station in orbit. So far, the hatches between the two halves remain open. Charlie Bolden was a NASA astronaut and served as the agency's administrator during the Obama administration. He says that while the partnership has endured geopolitics for decades, just how long that relationship can now last is unclear.

CHARLIE BOLDEN: This is different. This is dramatically different.

BYRNE: The long-term fate of the station may now be at risk, says space policy analyst Laura Forczyk. Russia, even before the invasion of Ukraine, was hesitant to join NASA beyond 2024, even though the U.S. has agreed to extend its support of the space station through 2030.

LAURA FORCYZK: But at this point, I think that might even be optimistic.

BYRNE: Commercial partners, like SpaceX, have helped NASA end the nearly decade-long reliance on Russia for rides to the station, and the agency hopes commercial partners will help build a new space station to replace the ISS without Russia.

Some space missions have already been impacted by these growing diplomatic tensions. The European Space Agency was set to launch a robotic mission to Mars on a Russian rocket. In a statement issued last week, the agency says due to rising tensions and sanctions against Russia, a planned launch this year is very unlikely. A Russian launch of commercial satellites from British company OneWeb was canceled.

But for the seven space station astronauts, Virts's advice is to remain united.

VIRTS: Let's focus on our crew. Let's focus on our mission. And we can worry about Earth when we get back to Earth.

BYRNE: One American astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, is set to make that return to Earth this month on a Russian spacecraft.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "ECHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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