The unloading of the International Space Station was a little to be desired and showed a delay of a few days due to a hurricane in Florida, but it ended up arriving overnight between Thursday and Friday. And not just any sequel! The crew of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida was particularly cosmopolitan with two NASA astronauts, Japanese Koichi Wakata and… a Russian, Anna Kikina. Quite a symbol in a context of war in Ukraine, which is more tense than ever.
This invitation was decided in July, as part of a kind of exchange program between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. On September 21, American Francisco Rubio was invited into the tiny cockpit of the Soyuz spacecraft with two Russian colleagues to join the ISS. As a commemoration of the 2011-2020 era, when the Americans no longer had a national spacecraft to travel in space, after the closure of the US space shuttle. For a decade, Western astronauts have traveled in Russian rockets and paid more expensive tickets (from $20 million in 2010, the Soyuz space has risen to $81 million). NASA has since regained independent access to Earth orbit with SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spacecraft. It can now return the favor of the Russians by welcoming one of their own in this new generation shuttle. And seeing a cosmonaut take off at Cape Canaveral is the first time in twenty years.
The astronaut exchange program was intended to ensure the continued presence of at least one American and one Russian aboard the station, even if a space capsule were to return to Earth immediately, the two agencies explained. The collaborative work with navigation and maintenance of the ISS will thus be ensured. Which is the least… But the former head of Roscomos, Dmitri Rogozine had managed to cast doubt in recent months, not remembering that it is the Russians who are responsible for maintaining the altitude of the space station, and threatening social network to bring down the ISS if economic sanctions against Russia were not lifted. Fortunately for everyone, the belligerent Rogozin was removed from his post. And on the same day, a manager of the ISS program at NASA formalized the astronaut exchange pact. The message is now clear: Americans and Russians will continue to work together in space on good terms.
Rogozin was replaced by Yuri Borissov, who until then was the deputy prime minister of the Russian government in charge of defense industry and space. A man with a completely different temperament. “The former director of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, was quite upset”, confided at the end of September the head of NASA, Bill Nelson, who passed Paris on the occasion of the International Astronautical Congress. Whereas “the new director, Yuri Borissov…” He pauses and draws a sea of oil with his hand: “He doesn’t make waves.” Bill Nelson now says he is confident he can work with the Russians in the ISS until the late 2020s, as originally planned. The space station is to be desorbed in 2031. Yet Yuri Borissov announced it this summer “The decision has been made” for the Russians to leave the ISS “after 2024”, a statement that caused a stir but doesn’t mean much. The Russians pretend to hesitate, and almost every week a new statement comes out without consequence.
For his part, the CEO of Roscosmos, Sergei Krikalev, seems to be on the same peaceful wavelength as Bill Nelson. On Tuesday, he said at a press conference that he counted on the Russian government’s permission to extend cooperation with the Americans after 2024. “I hope we can cooperate like in 1975, when it started”the official said, vowing that he is doing his best to ease any tension between the two agencies.
The presence of a Russian among the Americans is not the only strong symbol of this relief flight to the ISS. One of NASA’s two astronauts, Nicole Mann, is a member of the Round Valley Indian tribes in California. “I am very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage”said the 45-year-old aviator. “It’s important to celebrate our diversity, and also to realize how important it is to collaborate and unite, the incredible successes we can achieve together.” The message is clear.