Astronaut survival in the international orbital complex and joint spaceflight lies beyond confrontation

The US-Russia bridge that didn't destroy the Ukrainian war

PHOTO/FILE - The vast majority of the institutional bridges between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been broken by the war in Ukraine, but one remains unscathed.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces has been a flagrant breach of international law that has blown apart the many avenues of official cooperation that the White House and the Kremlin forged since the end of the Cold War. 

But there is one institutional bridge that is still standing, that has not been broken, that remains unscathed despite the turbulent waters of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union in their attempt to expel Vladimir Putin's troops from Ukrainian territory. 

It is a connecting route that has suffered no apparent damage, despite the fact that Washington, Brussels and most European capitals supply the Kiev government with heavy weapons and ammunition. And each shipment provokes impetuous countermeasures from the Kremlin and the threat of tactical nuclear weapons. 

The foundation of this bridge of cooperation between the United States and Russia is not anchored in the ground, but orbits the Earth at a distance of just over 400 kilometres. It is called the International Space Station (ISS) and is considered to be the largest joint project between the space agencies of the United States (NASA) and Russia (Roscosmos), with the more modest participation of their counterparts in Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA) and Europe (ESA), in which Spain participates. 

Made up of eight cylindrical modules under NASA control and six under Russian ownership, the survival of its crew - now three American astronauts, three Russians and an Emirati guest - in the hostile environment of outer space and their research work is what takes precedence over any other consideration. A convulsive and uncertain international situation of confrontation between the major nuclear powers and their allies over Ukraine is relegated to the background.

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It all began with Yuri Gagarin 62 years ago

In August, the US SpaceX Crew-7 capsule is scheduled to transport a Japanese, a Dane, an American and a Russian to the ISS to take over from the four remaining astronauts. In September, two Russians and an American will arrive in the Russian Soyuz MS-24 capsule to replace the veterans who have yet to return to Earth. A control centre in Houston (Texas) and another outside Moscow (TsUP) are keeping an eye on the physical and emotional state of the crew and the technical conditions of the orbital complex. 

The ISS is the enormous qualitative leap that prolongs the individual feat of Soviet Air Force Captain Yuri Gagarin, who, at the age of 27 and enclosed in a spherical capsule just over 2 metres in diameter called Vostok 1, became the first human being to orbit the Earth for a mere 108 minutes on 12 April 1961.  

It was three and a half years after the launch on 4 October 1957 of Sputnik-1, the first artificial Earth satellite, whose flight, like Gagarin's, proclaimed to the four winds the technological supremacy of the then Soviet Union over the United States.

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Yuri Gagarin was hailed as a superman in much of the world and his smile made him something of an apostle of Moscow. But he died far too young - on 27 March 1968 - just seven years after his exploit, when the MiG-15 two-seater jet in which he was training crashed to the ground. 

The first firm work on making the ISS a reality took place in the mid-1990s. Today, the ISS still remains in orbit as the most important and longest-lived modular space cooperation project in the short history of astronautics.

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The West proposes 2030, Russia favours 2028

The orbital complex is the size of a football field and its many different occupants have suffered the hardships of many difficult political moments, such as the war in Afghanistan and the two wars in Iraq, in which Russians and Americans maintained antagonistic and tense positions. 

In a few hours the ISS will have been permanently inhabited for 8,200 days. The first crew of three men arrived in November 2000, 22 years and just over 5 months ago. To date, a total of 266 astronauts from 20 different nationalities have inhabited the ISS, including former Spanish Minister Pedro Duque, who spent 10 days on board in October 2003 to complete the Cervantes mission. And so on and so forth until... Until when? 

The Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on 24 March that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will fund the operation of the ISS until 2030. Japan and the European Agency had decided in November 2022. NASA, on 31 December 2021, was the first to announce that it would maintain the presence of its astronauts until 2030, six years longer than previously agreed with the project's partners. And Rusia.

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In Moscow, at its meeting on 6 February, the Roscosmos Designers' Council analysed the technical situation of the Russian ISS modules and their on-board systems and concluded that "despite repairs and new equipment, around 80% of them are out of service". 

Vladimir Solovyov, a former cosmonaut with direct responsibility for human spaceflight, said: "We have studied the reports and all the existing deficiencies in great detail and have come to the conclusion that the operation of the Russian segment can continue until 2028". This is the proposal to the Kremlin from Russia's top technical space managers, provided, of course, that "a programme to upgrade on-board systems" is carried out as a matter of urgency.

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