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With tensions between U.S. and Russia high here on Earth, space partnership remains intact -- for now

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA
Getty Images
IN SPACE - MAY 29: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), back dropped by planet Earth the International Space Station (ISS) is seen from NASA space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation May 29, 2011 in space. After 20 years, 25 missions and more than 115 million miles in space, NASA space shuttle Endeavour is on the last leg of its final flight to the International Space Station before being retired and donated to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Capt. Mark E. Kelly, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-AZ) husband, has lead mission STS-134 as it delivered the Express Logistics Carrier-3 (ELC-3) and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-2) to the International Space Station. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

In the winter of 2015, an American astronaut on the International Space Station had a unique perspective on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. "We’re looking out the window, and there's red flashes," says Terry Virts, a former NASA astronaut. "We're watching people being killed on earth."

The crew of the International Space Station looked at the window at the conflict in Ukraine below. "It was a profoundly sad moment." Some of the crew had family in Ukraine and Russia. 

Virts, who retired from NASA in 2016 after spending more than 200 days in space, recalls despite what was happening on the ground, he and his crew mates looked past geopolitical differences for the good of the mission at hand. "Here we are working together, our goal is just not to die in space. We're just trying to survive."

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are high as the U.S. imposed strict sanctions in the wake of the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, but some 150 miles above Earth an important partnership between the U.S. and Russia remains: the International Space Station. Historically, the partnership between the two countries has transcended political tension here on Earth. That relationship could soon erode.

"I think there's a real possibility. No one knows right now," says Rodger Handberg, a political scientists at UCF who focuses on space and defense policy. "One way that [Russia] can really damage the United States in terms of space station, is to say 'okay, we're going to take our piece and go home.'"

The International Space Station is essentially two halves, one operated by the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the other maintained by the U.S. space agency NASA. The Russian side of the space station is responsible for keeping the station in orbit and pointing in the right direction. So far, the hatches between the two sides remain open and NASA says it's committed to maintaining its relationship with Roscosmos to continue safe operation of the station.

“We are not getting any indications at a working level that our [Russian] counterparts are not committed to ongoing operations,” says NASA associate administrator Kathy Lueders, head of the agency's human spaceflight efforts.

It appears the partnership between the U.S. and Russia will remain in place -- at least for the short term. But the long term fate of the station is at risk.

"I think it would be tragic for us to lose the ability to collaborate with our Russian partners, that we've been able to work with all these decades, successfully, in spite of everything else that's going on," says Charlie Bolden, a former NASA astronaut who served as NASA's administrator during the Obama administration. "But this is different. This is dramatically different."

The U.S. has agreed to extend its support of the space station through 2030, but Russia, even before the invasion of Ukraine, was hesitant to join with NASA.

"The Russian government, under the best of circumstances only committed to 2024," says Space Policy Online editor Marcia Smith. "If anything, I think that this should give some boost to the efforts to build a follow on to ISS with the commercial partners."

Commercial partners like SpaceX have helped NASA end the nearly decade-long reliance on Russia for rides to the station and the agency hopes commercial partners will help build a new space station to replace the ISS -- without Russia.

Some space missions have already been impacted by these growing diplomatic tensions. The European Space Agency was set to launch a robotic mission to Mars this year on a Russia rocket. In a statement issued this week, the agency says due to rising tensions and sanctions against Russia, a planned launch this year is very unlikely.

For the 7 people on board the ISS -- four Americans, one German and two Russians -- retired astronaut Terry Virts' advice is to remain united.

“We're not soldiers. We're not involved in that. We're up here in space. Let's focus on our crew, let's focus on our mission. And we can worry about Earth when we get back to Earth.”

One American astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, is set to make that return to Earth this month, on a Russian spacecraft.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program.

Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.