If the Russians have their way, the American astronaut Mark Vande Hei might not be returning to earth following the Russian Roscosmos’s Director-General’s threats to leave him following the US sanctions on the country.
Hei has already spent 355 days in space, the longest of any human being. Currently, he is on a schedule to return in three weeks.
He isn’t alone though; two Russian cosmonauts are currently on the International Space Station (ISS) with him. All three are slated to return on the same flight back to Kazakhstan. Their return is a perilous one, but so far it seems as if the trio is unaffected by the situations here on Earth. Their ability to put aside the differences the two countries are facing to continue the mission is huge, and a good representation of what is possible.
Part of the US-led sanctions is the ban on more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports. This ban itself would accomplish big things according to President Biden. “It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
This kind of ban also means that they get pushed behind the US and makes their involvement with the ISS more dangerous than ever.
NASA on the other hand sees things differently. They have stated that civil cooperation between the two countries remained intact, and there were no changes planned. The commitment from NASA is to support all the space operations, both here on Earth as well as in space.
This message was not received by the Russians with the same urgency the Biden message was heard.
Director-General of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin responded to Biden in a series of tweets. These hostile messages threatened to leave Hei behind in space and detach the Russian portion of the space station.
While NASA is giving this threat very little attention, it needs to be given the attention and respect that kind of threat deserves. The Russian people know how delicate the situation is here on Earth, but with so very little coming from their ISS counterparts, we are only able to assume that all is well.
Another big area Russia is making demands in is with their relationship with OneWeb. The UK-based organization provides internet satellites. Their deal with Russia would most recently have sent a rocket with 36 satellites into orbit in the Soyuz rocket. In the days before the planned launch, Russia started making outrageous demands.
One of the biggest demands made was that OneWeb ousts the UK government as a major stakeholder in the company and the project. They also began demanding that the satellites not be used for military purposes.
In response to these demands, OneWeb halted the satellite launch altogether. This kind of response from either side is not surprising. The Russians have good reason to fear the UK’s intentions, and the people of OneWeb have a good reason not to give in to demands that they are not in full control of.
As the conflict wages on Hei must be feeling more and more like Major Tom from David Bowie’s Space Odyssey. Here he is, sitting in a tin can. Far above the world. Planet earth is blue, and there is nothing he can do. This is a sad and lonely place to be.
With any luck, the other two don’t detach or leave him behind, and they get him back safely. It is not his fault nor theirs for the current situation in Ukraine.