April 22, 2022

International politics

What does Russia’s war in Ukraine mean for collaborative space exploration?

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image showing detail of a 1965 Soviet Union stamp commemorating the first spacewalk. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of a 1965 Soviet Union stamp commemorating the first spacewalk. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Since the first human forayed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, politics has never left space

In the winter of Melbourne’s Great Lockdown of 2020, I sought release from my claustrophobia and anxiety by contemplating outer space. I read the memoirs of astronauts, the academic papers of astrobiologists, and exchanged emails with one of the last men alive to have walked upon the Moon. It was a strange time, and is recollected now like a dream.  

Inside my cosmic rabbit hole, I came across an extraordinary story: In 2010, a Russian cosmonaut, while performing external maintenance on the International Space Station (ISS), became untethered. It was Oleg Skripochka’s first spacewalk, and, as he began his fatally irreversible drift into space, he struck an antenna and bounced back towards the station – where he gripped a handrail, and anxiously used the others to scale safely back inside.

This story was told briefly in NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s 2017 memoir Endurance. A few reviews and obscure Reddit forums have cited Kelly’s anecdote, but no other account seemed to exist independently of his book. The Russian space agency declared that it had asked Skripochka about the incident and that he hadn’t confirmed it, but released no other information. The spacewalk was broadcast live, but the archival link to the footage is long dead. A search of newspaper archives proved fruitless, and Skripochka’s Wikipedia entry, which details each of his spacewalks, makes no mention of it.

In his memoir, Kelly writes that he was onboard the ISS at the time, but not part of the spacewalk, and didn’t learn of the incident until 2015. He recalls seeing Skripochka re-enter the station afterwards but, unaware of the accident at the time, attributed his colleague’s ashen face to the ordinary nerves of a debutant spacewalker.

Kelly wrote: “I’ve often pondered what we would have done if we’d known he was drifting irretrievably away from the station. It probably would have been possible to tie his family into the comm system in his spacesuit so they could say good-bye before the rising CO2 or oxygen deprivation caused him to lose consciousness – not something I wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about as my own spacewalk was approaching.”

I obsessed over this quote, and even based a short story upon it. Then, in February this year, I could hear it chiming subtly, but strangely, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Spacewalks began in 1965, when the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov spent 12 strange, exalted minutes outside the Voskhod 2 shuttle. There was no purpose to the spacewalk beyond demonstrating that it could be done – and done before the Americans. It was broadcast live in the Soviet Union until, that is, they thought that Leonov might die.

The mission’s purpose was so secret that even Leonov’s family, watching from home, didn’t know about it. So, when Leonov’s father saw his son floating outside the shuttle, he assumed his dear boy was engaged in some lunatic machismo, and condemned his immaturity to the journalists that had filled his home. “Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” Leonov later reported his father shouting. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this.”

While tethered outside his shuttle, Leonov experienced decompression sickness, near-heatstroke and produced so much sweat that, in the low gravity of his orbit, it floated and pooled within his helmet, functionally blinding him. Then his spacesuit, to which the broadcasting camera was attached, expanded enough to both obscure the camera’s lens and to prevent his re-entry through his shuttle’s airlock.

Fearing disaster, the Soviets cut the transmission, and the grainy footage of humanity’s first spacewalk was replaced with a still screen and the sound of Mozart’s Requiem.

Decades later, Leonov wrote about what followed: “I had to find another way of getting back inside quickly, and the only way I could see to do this was pulling myself into the airlock gradually, head first. Even to do this, I would carefully have to bleed off some of the high-pressure oxygen in my suit, via a valve in its lining. I knew I might be risking oxygen starvation, but I had no choice. If I did not re-enter the craft, within the next 40 minutes my life support would be spent anyway.”

Leonov had to deflate himself to re-enter, which he successfully did. He never reported his peril to ground control, because he assumed the world was watching. The “world” included his family, the Kremlin and the Americans. “At first I thought of reporting what I planned to do to mission control,” he wrote. “But I decided against it. I did not want to create nervousness on the ground. And anyway, I was the only one who could bring the situation under control.”

Many hundreds of hours of spacewalks have since been clocked, and no one has ever floated off. In the scheme of our presence up there – the International Space Station has been permanently occupied for 21 years now – spacewalks are an ordinary and apolitical venture, no longer assertive declarations of power as they were during the Cold War.

And yet… what if they are?

It seemed strange to me that such an extraordinary incident as Skripochka’s untethering could be concealed from a crew of only seven, each of them bright, attentive and fastidious log-keepers who share the strange intimacy of occupying a confined station that’s hurtling around the Earth at almost eight kilometres a second. 

In 2010 when, Kelly tells us, Skripochka became untethered, Russian cosmonauts wore the Orlan M-model spacesuit, which, unlike their American counterparts, had no jet-pack. In the worst-case scenario, if a spacewalking NASA astronaut became untethered, they would, theoretically, be able to engage their jets to guide themselves back to the station. It’s a final fail-safe, but one that the Russians didn’t acquire for another five years.

Was the alleged untethering – and this discrepancy in the spacesuits’ technology – sufficiently embarrassing that it compelled a conspiracy of silence? Like Leonov almost half a century earlier, did Skripochka simply withhold reporting it?

I inquired with both the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and Scott Kelly’s agent, but heard nothing back.

The ISS is fixed roughly 400 kilometres above Earth, and has also seemed to be above the terrestrial politics far below. (I say “roughly” because its orbit slowly decays, requiring periodic engine thrusts to compensate for the loss of two kilometres a year.)

But China has always been excluded from the station. The ISS program is maintained by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China is now well advanced in the construction of its own station, the Tiangong (“heavenly palace”), which should become fully operational later this year. Russia also says that it has designed its own national station, and pledged to launch it in 2025. (The Russians decommissioned the Mir station in 2001, after its launch in 1986. At the time, it was the largest artificial satellite in orbit and the longest inhabited.)

Politics never left space, but Earth’s low orbit currently hosts distinctively combative projections of power. In November, Russia destroyed one of its Soviet-era satellites with a missile. It was an audacious declaration of not only the nation’s offensive ability, but its indifference to the safety of those on board the ISS, including two Russian cosmonauts: the explosion generated at least 1500 bits of high-velocity debris that was thought sufficiently dangerous to the station that its occupants sheltered in two escape shuttles for hours afterwards. To contextualise this threat, in 2016 a fleck of paint substantially chipped an 80-centimetre-thick window on the ISS.  

Dmitry Rogozin, the current head of Russia’s space agency and a former deputy prime minister and defence chief, has long been theatrically belligerent. His belligerence has increased since Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, and Rogozin has threatened to rescind Russian space collaboration as leverage. Some recent tweets from Rogozin: “The purpose of the sanctions is to kill the Russian economy, plunge our people into despair and hunger and bring our country to its knees” and “I believe that the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions.”

And it’s become personal. On Twitter, Scott Kelly mocked Rogozin in Russian, saying that without international collaboration, the Russian space program “won’t be worth a damn. Maybe you can get a job at McDonald’s, if McDonald’s still exists in Russia.”

“Get off, you moron!” Rogozin replied. “The death of the International Space Station will be on your conscience.”

NASA has shrugged off the truculence – it points to Rogozin’s long history of “spouting off”, plus Russia is still cooperating with the ISS program. And the threat is less severe than it was just a few years ago, when NASA missions to the ISS depended upon Russian transport. Since 2020, Elon Musk’s SpaceX shuttles have served NASA’s relays.

Regardless, Rogozin’s threatening chauvinism is suggestive, I think, of the broader culture of insecurity and corrupt servility in Putin’s mob-state. And Alexei Leonov’s refusal to alert ground control to his jeopardy reminds me today of Putin’s obliviousness to the true, corrupted state of his military.

The International Space Station is dying. Since its launch in 1998, it’s been degraded by solar radiation on one side, and frozen on the other. Repeated docking and undocking have worn its machinery. It was initially commissioned for 15 years, and has already outlived that expectation by six.

It’s now scheduled for decommissioning in 2031, when it will be slowly brought out of its orbit by remotely controlled thrusters, and directed to Point Nemo, aka the spacecraft’s graveyard: a lonely place in the Pacific Ocean that’s the furthest point from human civilisation.

Before then, it will contend with increasing space debris and the bloody, high-stakes politics of its managers on Earth. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the Moon, once said about seeing the Earth whole from space. “From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”

Mitchell’s was a rare and privileged vantage, and a personally transformative one, but by definition its lessons of sublime universality remain elusive, impractical, naive. And of bitter redundancy to Ukrainians.  

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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