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Despite Diplomatic Tensions, U.S.-Russia Space Ties Persist
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Despite Diplomatic Tensions, U.S.-Russia Space Ties Persist

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Despite Diplomatic Tensions, U.S.-Russia Space Ties Persist
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut from the International Space Station are returning to earth tonight. Their ride is a Russian Soyuz capsule and the landing zone is in a remote part of central Asia. The Russians will pick them up and, despite current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, American Mike Hopkins has a seat on the flight home. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: After the parachutes open and the Soyuz capsule touches down on the remote frozen plains of Kazakhstan, astronaut Mike Hopkins is going to get a cold reception.

JOSH BYERLY: It is so cold that you don't even feel the cold. It's just pain.

BRUMFIEL: That's NASA spokesperson Josh Byerly who's been out there in the spring. March is not a great time to visit and this March, in particular, is problematic. Tensions over Russia's military intervention in Crimea are straining relations and it's the Russians who are supposed to giving Hopkins a ride back to civilization. Are you guys sure he's going to get picked up?

BYERLY: Yeah. I mean, we are confident. The Russians take very good care of our crew whenever they're out there. Obviously, there's a NASA landing team that is there as well.

BRUMFIEL: Does the NASA landing team have their own helicopters?

BYERLY: No. We ride with the Russians.

BRUMFIEL: NASA also rides with the Russians to the International Space Station. Russian rockets are the only way up. It's been that way since the U.S. retired the space shuttle in 2011 and it will be that way for at least a few years to come, until NASA and its partners have a replacement ready to fly. But Russia needs NASA, too. The U.S. pays $70 million for every astronaut it sends up.

James Oberg, a space analyst and former NASA official, says the Russians rely on that money.

JAMES OBERG: The Kremlin budget people have always put pressure on their space program to bring in about 20 percent or more of their operating budget from foreign sales.

BRUMFIEL: And Oberg says, without the space station, the Russian rockets have nowhere to go.

OBERG: Well, this mutual co-dependence, this awkward reluctant partnership has benefitted both sides enough to put up with all the hassles.

BRUMFIEL: So, for now at least, no matter how bad things get on Earth, Russia and America will continue to play nice in space. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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