Earlier in the week, Russian space agency Roscosmos posted photos of three of its cosmonauts parading a flag of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic aboard the floating space vessel with captions celebrating the “liberation” of the Luhansk province — a move NASA fiercely condemned.
“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,” NASA said in a statement.
Moscow declared victory in Ukraine’s Luhansk province on Sunday. The country pivoted to the Donbas region where Luhansk is located in May after facing myriad setbacks while trying to subdue the capital city of Kyiv. The invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
The Donbas region is home to a large presence of separatists whom Russia backs. President Vladimir Putin’s forces achieved “full control” over Lysychansk and nearby municipalities in the province, Russia’s defense ministry claimed.
As diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia continue to degrade amid the conflict, the space agencies of the two countries have continued to collaborate on research and work on the space station. NASA and Roscosmos have refrained from criticizing each other in public, making NASA’s sharp words significant, according to Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has sought to conserve a working relationship with Roscosmos, arguing the two managed to cooperate at times during the Cold War. He also stressed that both Russia and the U.S. were needed to keep the space station running.
“Peaceful cooperation continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our space shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. And then we decided to build the International Space Station together,” Nelson recently told German publication Der Spiegel. “Both countries are needed for operations, the Russians for propulsion, the Americans for power. We will continue to have a very professional relationship between cosmonauts and astronauts to keep this station alive.”
Meanwhile, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos who is known for his bravado, has been less guarded with his public remarks regarding space cooperation. In May, he crowed about how Russia would soon have additional nuclear firepower while suggesting “that aggressors speak to us more politely.”
When the war in Ukraine first broke out, he dropped a stark warning to the West that frayed relations could result in the 500-ton space station crashing down on Europe or the U.S. — something SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested he could counter.
мусором, коим ваши талантливые бизнесмены загадили околоземную орбиту, производится исключительно двигателями российских грузовых кораблей “Прогресс МС”. Если заблокируете сотрудничество с нами, кто спасёт МКС от неуправляемого схода с орбиты и падения на территорию США или…
— РОГОЗИН (@Rogozin) February 24, 2022
In March, shortly after Russia invaded, a controversy erupted after Russia’s cosmonauts boarded the space station in yellow and blue suits that many interpreted as a sign of support for Ukraine, as the suits were the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
A U.S. astronaut aboard the space station as well as the head of Roscosmos later claimed that the cosmonauts wore the yellow and blue spacesuits in honor of the colors of their alma mater, Bauman Moscow State Technical University. “Sometimes yellow is just yellow,” Roscosmos’s press service said on its Telegram channel, per Reuters. “The flight suits of the new crew are made in the colors of the emblem of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which all three cosmonauts graduated from … to see the Ukrainian flag everywhere and in everything is crazy.”