With tensions between the U.S. and Russia sky-high following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some officials are working hard to maintain the International Space Station as a symbol of peace and collaboration.
NASA, for example, is "pushing" to send a Roscosmos astronaut up to the International Space Station on the next crewed SpaceX launch, with Joel Montalbano, program manager of the orbital station saying it is "the right thing to do", according to a report from Ars Technica.
NASA and Roscosmos' upcoming seat swap launches
Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, tensions between Russia and its space partners have threatened to affect operations on the ISS, with Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin stating Russia will likely ditch the orbital station in the coming months.
Before the Ukraine conflict, NASA and Russia had planned "seat swaps" for this fall, with Russian cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, having been scheduled to fly on SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Kikina would have been the first cosmonaut to launch to the ISS aboard a SpaceX rocket.
As things stand, Kikina is still scheduled to launch as part of NASA's and SpaceX's "Crew-5" mission in September. A separate mission, Soyuz MS-22, is also scheduled to launch NASA astronaut Frank Rubio aboard one of the Russian rockets. Seat swaps are useful for operational purposes, as they mean each country can ensure they have at least one crew member aboard the ISS to operate their side of the station at all times.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Montalbano said its touch and go as to whether the seat swap agreement will still go ahead. "It's a process," Montalbano explained. "Roscosmos needs to get agreement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then they go to their Prime Minister. After that, the agreement comes to the US State Department for approval."
'I think it's the right thing to do'
As for whether Montalbano wants to go ahead with the seat swap deal himself? He suggests it would be a good way to alleviate tensions. "I'm pushing," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do, just because it's happened with similar vehicles. But we'll have to see."
Following the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russia's Soyuz rockets for transportation to and from the ISS for almost 10 years. In May 2020, however, SpaceX's Demo-2 launch took two NASA astronauts to the ISS, bringing human spaceflight back to U.S. soil.
Roscosmos did recently stick to its agreement to return U.S. astronaut Colonel Mark Vande Hei to Earth with a crew of cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz rocket. That came at the early stages of Russia's invasion, shortly after Rogozin tweeted the ISS could come crashing down over Europe following western sanctions aimed at Russia's aerospace industry. Still, it's easier to go back on an agreement regarding an astronaut that's on the ground, rather than the other way around. According to Montalbano, Russia's Kikina was in Houston last week for training, however, and she is expected to return to the U.S. in mid-June for training at SpaceX's training facilities in Hawthorne, California.