Before a Soyuz capsule carried three crew members from Expedition 40/41 to the International Space Station in late May, the crew made a display of unity by posing for a group hug and posting a selfie on twitter during the pre-flight press conference.
They made headlines with the gesture to underscore the cooperation of the many nations involved with the ISS. The 3-man crew includes a German (Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst,) a Russian (Soyuz Commander Maxim Suraev,) and an American (Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman.) The embrace promoted the goodwill felt by the team, even as political pressures are mounting and stress is beginning to wear on the international partnership between Russia and the United States.
We will fly to space tomorrow. But first, let us take a selfie...! ;)
— Alexander Gerst (@Astro_Alex) May 27, 2014
Since the Space Shuttle program ended, the U.S. has relied on Russia for rides to and from the ISS. Recent geopolitical unrest and tension between the two superpowers has thrown many questions onto the future of the space program’s cooperation and self-reliance.
Eric Berger recently published an in-depth piece entitled “Adrift” in the Houston Chronicle detailing the tensions and challenges of Russia and the U.S. working together and how the political arena plays into the power structure in the relationship.
“With the shuttles in museums, the station is NASA’s only operational piece of human spaceflight hardware, and will likely remain for at least a decade the only place for astronauts to go in space. Both Russia and the United States know that, without the station, they effectively have no human spaceflight program.”
Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine may well lead to sanctions, spearheaded by the United States. Sharp words from both U.S. and Russian interests have ensued.
Even though twitter was used to bolster good will before the mission launch, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently taunted the American space program on the very same platform this month: “I propose the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline,” Rogozin said.
Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin unveiled that barb while announcing that Russia plans to end ISS cooperation in 2020, four years sooner than NASA’s current wishes. Time magazine reports on the situation and the dynamics with a special video report:
Former Astronaut and Space Center Director Mike Coats spoke on the duality of the program’s cooperation in the Houston Chronicle:
“Astronaut to cosmonaut, scientist to scientist, engineer to engineer, we’ve had a wonderful working relationship with the Russians,” he said. “But politically, if they see an opportunity to exercise an advantage they have to do it. It’s in their makeup. They view weakness as something to be taken advantage of."
“It’s difficult dealing with Russians from a position of weakness, and we’re doing that.”
Even though the men and women of the Russian and American space programs work together gladly and demonstrate that cooperation, there remains an undercurrent of uncertainty.
It all amounts to a new Space Race, even while flying to and from space together.