For now, the ISS remains above conflict, both physically and politically.
Tensions between the United States and Russia are extreme at the moment, in the context of the invasion of Ukraine which continues to weigh heavily on international relations. Despite everything, American astronaut Mark Vande Hei has just returned to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule, accompanied by his two Russian colleagues. It thus offers itself a national record, but it also and above all becomes the symbol of the fundamental political role of space and the ISS in this difficult period.
This former soldier with a CV as long as his arm concludes his career as an astronaut with an impressive national record; he is the first American to have exceeded 355 consecutive days aboard the station. A figure that allows him to steal first place in the ranking from Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days in a row there from March 2015. In total, he has now accumulated more than 523 days in space!
But this return to Earth also took place in a very particular context. When Vande Hei left to reach the station aboard a Russian Soyuz, he had no idea that the landscape was going to change radically 400 km below. Since his departure, Russia has launched a vast military operation aimed at taking control of Ukraine, which has completely reshuffled all the cards in international relations.
Inevitably, relations between the United States and Russia, which have never been particularly warm, immediately deteriorated. The atmosphere should therefore be very special on board the ISS, with American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts perched together 400 km above this geopolitical quagmire. We remember, for example, the recent controversy over the color of the cosmonaut suit (see our article).
Russians and Americans put water in their wine
Fortunately, the long tradition of cooperation on board the ISS has prevailed. Astronauts and cosmonauts continued to work together by sticking together; they never ceased to show their team spirit in broad daylight, the only possible pragmatic response to the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding under their feet. Exemplary behavior commands admiration; but unfortunately, the relations between the institutions are not always so benevolent.
Some observers still wondered what fate would be reserved for Vande Heide, whose return was scheduled for Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz. Some observers feared that Roscosmos, which depends directly on the Kremlin, decided to repatriate its two cosmonauts while leaving Vande Hei on board the station.
This decision would probably have resulted in a complete breakdown of cooperation between NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos. But the Russian agency had already confirmed that it did not intend to vent on the poor astronaut, and that it would repatriate him as planned. And fortunately, Roscosmos kept its promise.
The return finally happened in a peaceful atmosphere; Vande Hei and his two colleagues landed together in Kazakhstan shortly after 1 p.m. The American will now return home very soon, with the support of the Russian authorities.
A symbol in spite of himself
This return to Earth would have been almost anecdotal in normal times, except for Vande Hei’s record; but in the current context, it is of absolutely capital importance. The fact that this soap opera had a happy ending once again shows the diplomatic and political importance of the ISS.
It is not just a research station: it is also a haven of geopolitical peace, an unshakable ivory tower that serves as a common pretext for cooperation. On board, the astronauts become shipwrecked volunteers, stuck in the same tin can in the middle of the void of space.
So they have no choice but to gain height, both literally and figuratively. The personnel know perfectly well that they must overcome these quarrels between nations for the good of the mission. The ISS therefore plays the role of a privileged and very important diplomatic channel. And its importance is far from being merely symbolic.
These communication channels are absolutely fundamental, especially in the current context. The return of Mark Vande Hei is therefore a discreet, but strong gesture; Roscosmos has shown that Russia is not fundamentally opposed to any common-sense decision, even when it comes to honoring a commitment to its greatest enemy.
Does this mean that the ISS will play a decisive role in overcoming the crisis in Ukraine? Probably not. But as things stand, it’s an inherently positive signal that the world particularly needs right now. And that, we can only be satisfied.