Yout was only eight years ago that German space station astronaut Alexander Gerst threatened, as he put it, to kick his crewmate’s butt. American astronaut Reid Wiseman was the one who had the butt. The kicking would, happily, be done only through proxy. On June 26, 2014, the U.S. was set to take on Germany in the World Cup. Gerst’s playful taunt (“I hope we kick their butt a little bit”) was revealed by NASA in a press release headlined, “Friendly Rivalry Pits U.S. vs. German Astronauts on Space Station.” For the record, Gerst got his wish, with Germany prevailing 1-0 in the match—and all remained amicable aboard the station.
But not in 2022. Ever since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine in February, NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have been at pains to stress that work would continue as collegially as always aboard the station—even as tensions remain between Washington and Moscow “Obviously, we understand the global situation,” said NASA associate administrator Kathy Leuders in a statement earlier in the year. “But as a joint team, these teams are operating together.”
They were. Yesterday that comity broke down after the three Russian cosmonauts aboard the station posed for pictures holding the flags of the ostensibly free Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, two regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia has seized and, to hear the Kremlin tell it, liberated. NASA had none of this.
“NASA strongly rebukes Russia using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine,” the space agency said in an email to reporters, “which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes.”
In the delicate terms of diplomacy at space stations, those were words that were used to fight. It was 55 years ago that the U.S., Russia, and other nations signed the celebrated “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” better known simply as “The Outer Space Treaty.”
Signatory countries were bound by the pact to not militarize space. A later agreement, signed in 1998, further defined rules and guidelines for conduct aboard the International Space Station. The treaty does not prohibit any country from making the symbolic gesture of finger in the eye that the Russians did this week. However, it is rare for such an act to occur before.
“It is unacceptable that the ISS becomes a platform to play out the political or humanitarian crises happening on the ground,” wrote European Space Agency Administrator Josef Aschbacher in a July 8 tweet. “The purpose of the ISS is to conduct research & prepare us for deeper exploration. It must remain a symbol of peace and inspiration.”
This is it for the moment. There is no word—and crew discretion Please being what it is, there will likely be no word—about how all of this is playing out among the astronauts and cosmonauts themselves. For now, the Donetsk and Luhansk flags are safely tucked away. Work continues as normal aboard the massive orbiting platform. This is the great news. Unfortunately, 400 km (248 miles) is the bad news. Below, the situation is worse in besieged Ukraine. The Russian cosmonauts’ bit of performance art is over. The Russian nation’s war goes on.
The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Sign up now
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