Saturday, May 21

Three Russian cosmonauts arrive at the International Space Station despite the war in Ukraine

After a flight of just over three hours, at 8:12 p.m., Spanish peninsular time, the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan docked this Friday with the International Space Station (ISS). English) with three Russian cosmonauts on board. The mission, planned for months, is part of the crew replacement process, and has been maintained despite the consequences that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had on space cooperation between Russia, the United States and Europe.

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This flight marks two milestones of a very different nature. On the one hand, it is the first launch that Russia has carried out since it invaded Ukraine on February 24 and after the international community imposed harsh economic sanctions on Moscow; on the other, it is the first time that a ship has docked with the Prichal docking module (which in turn was launched towards the ISS in November 2021).

Until today, seven astronauts lived on the ISS: four Americans, one European and two Russians. Selected in May 2021, the three cosmonauts who have just joined – Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov – constitute the first contingent of the so-called Expedition 67 that, over the coming months, must replace the members of the current Expedition 66.

The first trip back to Earth with members of Expedition 66, which is coming to an end, is scheduled for March 30. That is when they must return, in another Soyuz spacecraft (the MS-19) the American Mark Vande Hei – who has just break NASA’s record for longest stay in space– and the Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.

The return ship must land in Kazakhstan and the collection of the astronauts, according to the usual protocol, is coordinated by Russia. The war adds a point of tension and uncertainty to this delicate operation that until now had been developing without problems.

Just a few days ago, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, released an allegedly humorous video montage where they joked about not bringing the American back. The video caused deep discomfort among prominent members of the aerospace community. Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin called Western media “hysterical” for drawing the conclusion from the video that Vande Hei was going to be left behind.

At the beginning of March, NASA assured that the collaboration with Russia regarding the ISS would be maintained, but sources from the US agency recalled that they have been increasing their “operational flexibility” for months – since long before the war – so as not to depend so much on the ships. Russian ships for shipping cargo and personnel to the ISS.

Canceled projects

With the exception of the Space Station, the war has upended years of cooperation between Russia, the United States and Europe. In response to economic sanctions, Moscow weeks ago withdrew its staff from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana and suspended the service of Soyuz spacecraft that were scheduled to launch European satellites into orbit.

This Thursday the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the suspension of the ExoMars mission, one of the most ambitious joint projects between Russia and Europe, on which various institutions and companies have worked for years. Within the framework of that mission, an exploration vehicle was scheduled to be sent to Mars in September 2022.