Friday, August 12, 2022

Russia Flaunts ‘Victory Flag’ At International Space Station; NASA, ESA Rebuke Moscow For Politicizing ISS

NASA issued a strong statement on July 7 criticizing Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos for using the International Space Station to promote its invasion of Ukraine. This statement also marked a departure from the agency’s previous approach of focusing on continued collaboration despite the war.

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NASA “strongly rebuked” Russia for its political activity on the space station in connection with its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The brief statement made no mention of the incident that led to it.

“NASA strongly rebukes Russia using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes,” the agency said. 

The statement appears to be in reply to photos that the Russian space agency Roscosmos released on July 4 showing the three Russian cosmonauts on the station holding flags of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

ISS Luhansk flag
Russian cosmonauts Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev display a flag of the disputed Luhansk People’s Republic, a region of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, on the ISS July 4. Credit: Roscosmos

These are areas of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of Russian forces, but only Russia and Syria recognize their independence. The three Russian astronauts are Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev.  

The flags were flown to mark Lysychansk, the final city in Luhansk, occupied by Russian forces. The agency, along with the cosmonauts on board the station, congratulated the Luhansk People’s Republic government on capturing the city, according to a Roscosmos statement published on the social media platform Telegram.

The NASA statement contrasts with its earlier attempts to downplay the impact of the war on the ISS partnership in public. NASA leadership in the past said that the former Soviet Union and Russia had a long-standing collaboration in spaceflight that dates back to the Cold War.

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“On the station are Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, and they are all very professional. The relationship between the mission control in Houston and in Moscow is very professional,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on June 15 said during a press conference. 

“Despite the tragedies that are occurring in Ukraine by President Putin, the fact is that the international partnership is solid when it comes to the civilian space program,” he added.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) director-general, Josef Aschbacher, also chastised Roscosmos, posting on Twitter on July 8 that “it is unacceptable that the ISS becomes a platform to play out the political or humanitarian crises happening on the ground.” 

“The purpose of the ISS is to conduct research & prepare us for deeper exploration. It must remain a symbol of peace and inspiration,” the ESA chief added.

Similarly, the Canadian Space Agency issued a statement via email, stating: “The International Space Station partners continue to work together to advance space science and technology for the benefit of all humanity. That said, the Canadian Space Agency joins NASA in rebuking Russia for using the International Space Station, a beacon of peaceful cooperation, for political purposes to support its illegal war against Ukraine.”

Impact on International Space Station

Whether this incident will have a long-term impact on ISS cooperation is unknown. The seat-barter agreement between NASA and Roscosmos, which would allow American astronauts to fly on Soyuz spacecraft while Russian cosmonauts would travel on commercial crew spacecraft, has not yet been finalized.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, stated in a different Telegram post on July 6 that he anticipated having a final version of the agreement in one to two weeks.

On July 21, Artemyev and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency are expected to conduct a spacewalk from the Russian section of the International Space Station. These two are expected to work on a European robotic arm on the station’s Nauka module.

ESA - Where is the International Space Station?
File Image: International Space Station

Unfortunately, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian space agency has consistently engaged in campaigns like this one. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, has made a number of controversial public comments that have been interpreted as threats to end Russia’s participation in the ISS program. 

Russia had also removed foreign flags from a Soyuz rocket carrying internet satellites. That launch was canceled since the London-based OneWeb refused to abide by Rogozin’s requirement that the satellites not be used for military purposes. 

Earlier, a NASA astronaut had disclosed escalating tensions with Russian cosmonauts on board the International Space Station (ISS).

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