Physical combat is ongoing in Eastern Europe due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With the U.S. backing Ukraine financially and materially, tensions between the superpowers have skyrocketed. How high are these tensions? They are so high they reach all the way to the International Space Station (“ISS”) in low earth orbit and offer a potential battlefield in the heavens.
The International Space Station is just what its name implies; it’s a multinational collaborative project and the joint effort of five space agencies: NASA (U.S.); JAXA (Japan); ESA (Europe); CSA (Canada); and Roscosmos (Russia). The space station itself is modular and consists of two sections–the Russian Orbital Segment operated by the Russians (obviously) and the U.S. Orbital Segment operated by the U.S. These two segments are mutually dependent upon each other; the Russian module provides orbital control while power comes from the U.S. segment. The two modules must work together to achieve a successful operation.
In November 2000, one American and two Russians became the first full-time crew aboard ISS. Their cooperation was viewed as the beginning of a new post-Cold War era. But the current agreement for the joint operation of ISIS ends in 2024. Given current events, serious concerns exist as to whether Russia will abandon ISS because of them. Russia might decide to take its red marbles and go home; so much for playing nice in space.
The drama spiked with the recent arrival of three Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov, at ISS. Their appearance caused a stir due to the color of their flight suits. These suits were flashier than the typical pale blue flight suits cosmonauts wore in the past. In fact, they were–gasp!–yellow with blue trim. Why, yes–they colors of the Ukrainian flag. Coincidence or political statement?
Observant reporters noticed the color scheme and jumped on it during a press conference with the cosmonauts. Artemyev told them, “A color is simply a color.” Yeah, well, maybe, but when Russian cosmonauts diverge from the usual flight suit color and are wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag during a high-profile war, people conclude a subtle (or not) political statement is being made.
Artemyev attempted to provide reasonable explanations for the color selection. A lot of yellow material sat in storage, so they had to use yellow. OK, but WHY did Roscosmos purchase a bunch of yellow material when flight suits are typically blue? Not buying that one. Oh wait, the crew picked out the material six months in advance (translate before the war began) because the flight suits had to be individually sewn. Six months to sew a suit? Were they using Russian sloths transferred from the DMV to Roscosmos to do the sewing? And while we are asking questions, aren’t these explanations contradictory? Did they “HAVE” to use yellow because a bunch was in storage or did they “CHOOSE” yellow for a reason?
The buzz from the cosmonauts’ attire resulted in a statement by Artemyev being disseminated on Roscosmos’ Telegram channel. He noted, “There is no need to look for any signs or symbols in our uniforms.” And to make things crystal clear, he then said that, although the cosmonauts were in space, they were “together with our president and our people.” No confirmation yet on whether that statement was followed by a recorded message saying, “This is Vladimir Putin and I approved this message.”
But Russians, as well as Americans, can talk out of both sides of their mouths. The color scheme of the flight suits, so Artemyev indicated, was not a statement. However, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, then Tweeted a picture of the blue and gold coat of arms of the prestigious university which all three cosmonauts attended–Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Russia’s oldest and largest technical university The cosmonauts were giving their alma mater a shout out . (Couldn’t find what the school’s mascot is–perhaps they are the Moscow Mules?) So the color IS a sign supporting higher education at BMSTU but not of support of Ukraine.
While speculating as to why the Russians wore blue and yellow flight suits seems pretty tame, the situation plummets precipitously from there. Rogozin and retired U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly have engaged in a war of words on Twitter. During their exchanges, the Russian hinted an end to his country’s participation in the space venture if Americans continue “to be hostile.”
Kelly felt so strongly about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that he wrote: “I am returning to you the Russian medal for ‘Merit in Space Exploration’ which you presented to me. Please give it to a Russian mother whose son died in this unjust war.” American condemnation didn’t sit well with Rogozin who issued a thinly veiled threat on Twitter: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save ISS from an unguided impact on the territory of the U.S. or Europe?…The ISS doesn’t fly over Russia, so all the risk is yours. Are you ready for it?” Sounds like Rogozin is ready for a rumble.
Space X CEO Elon Musk has also gotten into it with Rogozin. (NOTE: Shouldn’t the Roscosmos chief be checking his agency’s yellow material inventory rather than playing on Twitter?) Musk angered Rogozin by providing Ukrainians Starlink equipment so they could access the internet via Space X’s Starlink system of internet satellites. Accordingly, Rogozin said Russia would stop selling Americans rocket engines. In fact, while appearing on Russian TV he remarked, “Let them fly on something else like their broomsticks.” Think Rogozin is getting swept up in negative emotions?
Isn’t it bad enough thousands have been killed in the invasion of Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians are displaced, and billions of dollars are going to weapons and military expenses? Must we now lose the ability to work together as inhabitants of Earth to explore space and develop technology? If Twitter is any indication, space isn’t “the final frontier,” it’s merely the next frontier to conduct squabbles and wars.
Was it genius for the ISS designers to make the station’s operation depend on mutual cooperation? Should what’s going on down on Earth affect what’s going on above Earth? What do you make of the attire worn by the cosmonauts–coincidence of color or conscious choice based on convictions?