Many people overlook the 92 year-old man, who was there for Wednesday’s launch of the latest crew of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). He was among dignitaries and it was not hard to find him. His name is Tom Stafford, and he looks nothing like he did back in the days of the Gemini and Apollo programs, when he flew to space four times—on one occasion commanding 1969’s Apollo 10, during which he piloted his lunar module down to within 14,325 m (47,000 ft) of the moon’s surface, in a final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing which would come two months later.
But he’s equally known for a mission he flew six years later, in July 1975, as one of the two commanders of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project—the first joint, two-spacecraft mission between the U.S. and the old U.S.S.R. At the time, the feuding nations were at dagger points on Earth but wanted to show the world that in space, at least, it was possible for sworn enemies to be close friends. And it’s this same message Stafford’s presence was intended to convey this week.
Things have gotten nasty between Washington and Moscow again, ever since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions regime the U.S. and other Western nations have put in place in response. The growing animosity between Washington and Moscow was initially spared by the U.S.-Russian cooperation aboard the ISS. But Dmitry Rogozin (ex-head of Roscosmos), threatened in July that Russia would end its ISS partnership as a result of the sanctions. This split is expected to take place sometime after 2024. Space seemed to have become just another arena for political machinations.
Things have changed. In July, Rogozin was replaced as head of Roscosmos by Yury Borisov, and no sooner did the new boss take over than Russia backed off of its threat to abandon the ISS, saying merely that it has designs to build its own station—which may not be complete until the end of the decade—and only when that happens will it dissolve the space station partnership.
Roscosmos, NASA, and Roscosmos also reached a seat swap agreement. A NASA astronaut would take to the skies each Soyuz-bound spacecraft heading for the ISS and a Russian cosmonaut would then fly on each SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Just over two weeks ago, astronaut Frank Rubio took off aboard an ISS-bound Soyuz, and on-board the Crew Dragon for Wednesday’s launch was rookie cosmonaut Anna Kikina, only the fifth Russian woman in space.
Stafford was invited as a symbol of U.S. and Russian space cooperation to speak at the launch. He did not address reporters afterward. But Sergei Krikalev, the head of Roscosmos’s human space flight program, did. He clearly thought about the achievements of veteran astronauts.
“We just continue what we started many years ago in 1975, when the Apollo-Soyuz crew worked together,” he said at a press conference after the launch. With more seats-swaps scheduled for the future, this continuation should continue at least through 2024.
These joint missions offer more than symbolic meaning. The joint missions allow for the presence of at least one Russian and American crew member on the station. This is vital to station operation, as NASA astronauts have more experience with U.S. segments of the station and Roscosmos scientists are better at managing Russian modules. Geopolitics are not completely eliminated by this. The ground is 400km (250 miles). Below the ISS the conflict in Ukraine is still raging. There is, however, a lasting peace up there.
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