A US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are set to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian-operated flight despite soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
NASA’s Frank Rubio and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin are scheduled to take off from the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 13:54 GMT on Wednesday, according to Russian space agency Roscosmos.
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Rubio will become the first US astronaut to travel to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket since President Vladimir Putin sent troops into pro-Western Ukraine.
In response, Western capitals including Washington have hit Moscow with unprecedented sanctions and bilateral ties have sunk to new lows.
However, space has managed to remain an outlier of cooperation between the two countries.
Following Rubio’s flight, Russia’s only active female cosmonaut Anna Kikina is expected to travel to the orbital station in early October onboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
She will become only the fifth professional woman cosmonaut from Russia or the Soviet Union to fly to space, and the first Russian to fly on board a spacecraft of SpaceX, the company of US billionaire Elon Musk.
With both flights set to go ahead, Russian cosmonauts and Western astronauts have sought to steer clear of the conflict that is raging back on Earth, especially when in orbit together.
Speaking a few weeks ago, NASA’s Rubio called it “an incredibly important mission” and said he had become “good friends” with his Russian crew mates.
Rubio called the cooperation between NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos “good and strong,” despite the heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Russia leaving ISS
At present, the ISS depends on a Russian propulsion system to maintain its orbit, about 250 miles (400km) above sea level, with the US segment responsible for electricity and life support systems.
However, tensions in the space field have grown after Washington announced sanctions on Moscow’s aerospace industry, triggering warnings from Russia’s former space chief Dmitry Rogozin, an ardent supporter of the Ukraine war.
Russia recently said it would withdraw from the space station after 2024 in light of the conflict – but no exact date was given and some analysts doubt Russia will follow through.
NASA called the decision an “unfortunate development” that would hinder the scientific work performed on the ISS.
Space analysts say that the construction of a new orbital station could take more than 10 years and Russia’s space industry, a point of national pride, would not be able to flourish under heavy sanctions.
The ISS was launched in 1998 at a time of hope for US-Russia cooperation following their Space Race competition during the Cold War.
During that era, the Soviet space programme flourished. It boasted a number of accomplishments that included sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first satellite four years earlier.
But experts say Roscosmos is now a shadow of its former self and has in recent years suffered a series of setbacks, including corruption scandals and the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft.
Russia’s years-long monopoly on crewed flights to the ISS is also gone, to SpaceX, along with millions of dollars in revenue.