Holding things together —
“We, as a team, are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago.”
NASA’s senior official for human spaceflight operations said Monday that the US space agency continues to operate the International Space Station as usual with its partners, including Russia.
“Our operations are nominal,” said Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders. She acknowledged that NASA continues to monitor the situation in Ukraine and work with the US State Department. “We’ve operated in these kind of situations before, and both sides always operated very professionally and understand at our level the importance of this fantastic mission.”
NASA flight controllers and other officials continue to work in Moscow, she said, and US and Russian managers have good communication. At the “working level,” at least, there are no signs of trouble. “We, as a team, are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago,” she said.
The space agency still plans to have NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei return to Earth on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in April, landing in Kazakhstan with two Russian crewmates. Typically, NASA officials travel to Russia and then Kazakhstan to be present for the landing. Lueders said all of the normal procedures for the landing are expected to proceed.
Lueders made these comments during a teleconference with reporters Monday to discuss the forthcoming Axiom 1 mission to the space station. Flying aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle, this will be the first completely private mission to visit to the space station. But the 10-day flight, launching no earlier than March 30, comes against a backdrop of uncertainty about the space station’s future. Russia has not confirmed participation in the project after 2024, and although Lueders said the 15 nations involved in the station have weathered previous geopolitical tensions, there has been nothing like this before during the project’s 20 years of existence.
European spacefaring nations, in particular, have expressed alarm at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Monday, the European Space Agency issued a statement saying, “We deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine.”
NASA has yet to issue such a statement condemning Russia’s action, and Lueders and other senior officials appear eager to preserve the partnership if at all possible. At present, NASA and Roscosmos must work together to keep the station flying. Russia provides fuel and thruster capability to periodically reboost the space station to a higher altitude, and NASA gyroscopes provide stability, while its solar panels generate the vast majority of electricity.
If a decision were made to break apart the station and close the Node 1 module’s aft hatch leading to the Russian segment, NASA may have emergency options. Russia, too, could probably preserve functionality of its part of the station for a time with frequent flights by Progress supply vehicles.
Asked directly if NASA were developing contingency plans for a separation scenario, Lueders again stated that relations with Russia’s space program were good. However, she then added that NASA was always looking for ways to improve capabilities on the space station. “We always look for how do we get more operational flexibility, and our cargo providers are looking at how do we add different capabilities,” she said.
For example, a Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft presently attached to the station is about to demonstrate a reboost of the ISS altitude for the first time. And while SpaceX’s Dragon vehicles do not have thrusters oriented to boost the station, Lueders said the company is looking at “additional capability” that might be provided by Cargo Dragons. Lueders did not mention Boeing’s Starliner vehicle, which could fly to the station as early as May, but this capsule will also have the capacity to boost the station’s altitude when it becomes operational.
Lueders was careful to say NASA was looking at these capabilities as “operational flexibilities.” But in reality, if NASA had an independent means to reboost the station and perform debris avoidance maneuvers, the agency could likely support the station without Russian partnership.
“A sad day”
No one at NASA really wants that, however. While the station is an important tool for the space agency’s science and human spaceflight missions, Lueders said the ISS partnership also represents an important symbol for human cooperation in a world filled with strife.
“ISS is an international partnership that was created as an international partnership with joint dependencies, which is what makes it an amazing program,” she said. “It’s a place where we live and operate in space, in a peaceful manner. That’s really a model for us to be operating in the future. And I actually feel like this is a good message for us, that we are operating peacefully and safe now and moving forward.”
And if the partnership were to break apart due to geopolitical tensions?
“It would be a sad day,” she said. “It would be a sad day.”