Could Russia's space agency be hinting at a detachment from the ISS?
For the last 24 years, the International Space Station (ISS) has been a shining light for international scientific associations. However, in the past few years, the same relations that helped cultivate collaborative studies have soured, and now, they are at an all-time low, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
Russian state media company RIA Novosti posted a video on messaging and social media app Telegram, which seemingly threatens to leave the last remaining U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei aboard the ISS as the Russian module detaches from the rest of the station.
What does the video show?
The video that can be watched below via NASA Watch, shows cosmonauts entering the Russian segment of the ISS, which is made up of the Zarya, Zvesta, and Nauka modules. They then proceed to seal the hatch behind them and wave goodbye to the rest of the ISS, including Col. Mark Vande Hei's sleeping quarters. The Russian segment then detaches from the station, alongside footage of applause from the RKA Mission Control Center in Moscow. The video ends with a disclaimer noting: "This is based on unreal events."
Russian gov't-controlled RIA Novosti @rianru posted a video on Telegram made by @Roscosmos where cosmonauts say goodbye to Mark Vande Hei on #ISS, depart, and then the Russian segment detaches from the rest of ISS. @Rogozin is clearly threatening the ISS program. #NASA #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/fj2coK1xR1— NASA Watch (@NASAWatch) March 5, 2022
Though the video was composed of recontextualized reel footage and CGI animations, the overriding implication is that Vande Hei would become stranded on the remaining part of the ISS. The plan was for the U.S. astronaut to join the remaining two Russian cosmonauts on a return journey to Earth in roughly three weeks' time. The return, which is scheduled in Kazhakstan, may have been put on hold given the situation on the ground.
The video strongly reflects the recent rhetoric of the head of Russia's space agency (Roscosmos), Dmitry Rogozin — the same man behind the already infamous American "broomstick" jibe following U.S. sanctions against Russia.
On February 24, Rogozin threatened that the ISS could fall out of the sky without Russian collaboration. Elon Musk subsequently said SpaceX could help keep the ISS in orbit in the case these claims turned out to be more than empty threats. On February 24, Rogozin tweeted the following: "Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them? Gentlemen, when planning sanctions, check those who generate them for illness."
Is the U.S. and Russia's space collaboration coming to an end?
The U.S. and Russia's space collaboration was already strained before President Joe Biden levied sanctions against Russia targeting high-tech imports — "It'll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program," Biden said during a White House address on February 24.
Last year, Russia announced plans to launch its own state-backed space station, while NASA kickstarted a program to help develop a series of space stations built by its private sector, including Blue Origin's Orbital Reef.
At the same time, Russia stated that it was considering opting out of renewing operational agreements over the ISS, due to its aging hardware. Reports at the time cited animosity between the U.S. and Russia due to espionage claims and trade tensions. Russia also turned down an invitation to participate in the U.S.' Gateway lunar orbit station, instead choosing to build a separate lunar space station with China.
The same year, the U.S. published its "Spacepower" military doctrine, claiming that Russia and China were to blame for the ongoing militarization of space.
The war in Ukraine has so far resulted in the tragic loss of life of more than 500 civilians. Its effects are also spreading to space, and they may finally signal the end of a more than two-decades-long international scientific collaboration.