Technology & Science

Why the Crimean crisis won't provoke a Cold War in orbit

While tensions mount over Crimea, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut strapped tightly inside a tiny Soyuz capsule will blast off today, business as usual, for the International Space Station.

Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut blast off from Kazakhstan

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      While international tensions mount over the crisis in Crimea, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut strapped tightly inside a tiny Soyuz capsule are to blast off today, business as usual, for the International Space Station.

      What's more, it's unlikely the international standoff over Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea will morph into any kind of Cold War in orbit as Alexander Skvortsov, Oleg Artemyev and Steve Swanson settle in for their extended stay on the ISS.

      "There's always the political side, but fortunately I think there's also always the explorative side, and the good examples of co-operation that are going on as a counterpoint," says retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who had his own widely praised experience of international co-operation as ISS commander last year.

      Beyond the exploration and the co-operation, however, there is a more fundamental joint goal: the ISS crew members depend on one another to stay alive.

      "We're in this together up there, and for each other we are the last people on Earth," says Hadfield, who returned last May after nearly six months on the ISS and is now a regular contributor with CBC News.

      Politics, Hadfield says, "almost exclusively" gets left on the ground when astronauts from Russia, the U.S., Canada or anywhere else head into orbit.

      "There's a long precedent of it," he says, noting the Apollo-Soyuz program of the 1970s, "a very politically charged time at the height of the Cold War."

      Whatever tensions may have been swirling on the ground, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Gerald Ford found time to make congratulatory phone calls to the astronauts and cosmonauts who successfully docked their Soyuz and Apollo vehicles high above the Atlantic Ocean on July 17, 1975.

      'Less than ideal'

      Fast-forward nearly four decades, and Russia and the U.S. are trading sanctions and harsh words against each other following Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

      At the same time, because of the conclusion of NASA's space shuttle program, the Russian-leased launch pad on the arid steppes of Kazakhstan has become the only route to the ISS.

      U.S. astronaut Steven Swanson, left, and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, centre, and Oleg Artemyev aren't likely to generate any Cold War-style conflicts during their stay on the International Space Station. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

      With some understatement, Hadfield notes that the political circumstances between the two countries right now are "less than ideal." But he hastens to add that there's a lot going on inside the ISS as it whirls around the globe 16 times a day. Politics back home are not top of mind for the astronauts and cosmonauts.

      "We all know that there are other disputes and problems, real world problems, going on in the world, but that's really not the purpose of why we're there, nor do we really have time to spend a lot of focus, of energy, on it," he says.

      "People are not going to really remember too much what a cosmonaut's political beliefs are, but they're really going to remember if an astronaut seriously makes a mistake.

      "So we focus on what's actually important, and not to add our voice to a lot of other people talking about a land dispute."

      No offence intended

      That said, those astronauts and cosmonauts on the $150-billion lab may still find themselves sensitive to the political differences playing out in their home countries 400 kilometres below them on Earth.

      "On board, we were just careful to try and not to offend each other," says Ken Bowersox, a retired NASA astronaut who was commander on the ISS in 2002-03.

      While he was in charge, international tensions were ratcheting up over what was to become the war in Iraq.

      All of the co-operating countries depend on each other.- Ken Bowersox

      Bowersox remembers the U.S. astronauts on board had taken pictures from the ISS of the combat that was going on in Iraq, and wanted to send the imagery to the ground.

      "I got permission to send the information down and then someone in the NASA hierarchy kind of chastised us for doing that and potentially offending our Russian partners," Bowersox says.

      But the Russians had been asked to take pictures, too.

      "It just goes to show how the folks will sometimes work to avoid any potential offence to the other partner because we are connected at the International Space Station. All of the co-operating countries depend on each other," says Bowersox.

      Not that it's always easy.

      "I've heard of other stories where different crew members had more difficult experiences getting through their time together because of things that were going on on the ground or attitudes that were different among cultures and different political attitudes," says Bowersox.

      That was more likely in the earlier days of the 16-year-old space station.

      "There was more friction as people got to know each other," says Bowersox. "It never boiled up into fights or anything like that, but there were memorable discussions, surprising discussions, among people where folks would realize just how different the view of the world was by other member partners."

      Still, the co-operation that has evolved can seem in marked contrast to the political differences that played out internationally as the Cold War heated up in the latter part of the 20th century.

      "Just in the generation of my parents, to think that Japan and Germany and Russia and the United States and Canada are all together building the space station … that would be pretty hard to expect," says Hadfield.

      Intercepting the bombers

      The 54-year-old former Canadian Armed Forces pilot, who grew up in that Cold War shadow, has his own, very personal frame of political reference.

      Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, top, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko of Russia wave farewell from the bottom of the Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 19, 2012. (Carla Cioffi/NASA/Associated Press)

      As Hadfield recalls, "I was a fighter pilot … off the coast of Newfoundland in the '80s with a fully armed F-18 intercepting Soviet bombers that were practising cruise missile launches on North America. That's in my lifetime."

      Hadfield readily admits his first perception of the Soviet Union — that it was an enormous country somewhere on the other side of the world with some sort of "lurking malevolence" to it — was not founded on fact.

      But it was only with his selection as an astronaut in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, that his view started changing. He met the first Russians who were chosen to fly on NASA's space shuttle. He learned Russian, and ended up living there for about four years.

      "Russia almost prides itself on its gruff, strong exterior. It's almost like a personality of it, and so a lot of people buy into that," Hadfield says. "They think the gruff exterior is in fact insight into the reality of it."

      Spend time there, though, and a different view emerges.

      "That gruff exterior ... I don't know what the right analogy is, but it's almost just an armour protecting an extremely generous and prideful and loving and historic group of people," Hadfield says.

      "They are not perfect, and their politics have all sorts of problems, but I think you could say those two sentences about any country in the world."

      Hadfield is looking forward to today's launch and doesn't anticipate any sort of Cold War emerging once the ISS crew is back to full strength and under the command of his astronaut classmate Koichi Wakata of Japan.

      "We're working hard up there to try to actually provide an example for the rest of the world," Hadfield says.

      "It's a big, complex human outpost, and we are just taking our first steps away."


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