The Limits of Science And Diplomacy In Space : Short Wave For decades, U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have lived side-by-side aboard the International Space Station. Host Aaron Scott talks with Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel about how a war on planet Earth is changing life in space and what those changes say about the limits of science as a tool for diplomacy.

For more of Geoff's reporting, check out "Russia's war in Ukraine is threatening an outpost of cooperation in space."

You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronScottNPR and Geoff @GBrumfiel. Email Short Wave at

War On Earth, Cooperation In Space

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.



Good day, SHORT WAVE-rs. Aaron Scott here in the studio with NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, it's a pleasure to speak with you in person.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Yes, it's really nice to be here, Aaron.

SCOTT: So tensions between the U.S. and Russia are running high right now.

BRUMFIEL: But up in space, everybody is getting along just fine.


MARK VANDE HEI: I think we will always look back on the International Space Station as being a fantastic example of what humanity can do when we cooperate.

BRUMFIEL: That was astronaut Mark Vande Hei speaking recently from the space station. Russia and America built it together, and since 2000, it's been continuously inhabited by both Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts.

SCOTT: And despite everything that's happening here on Earth, the two sides continue to cooperate. A full month into the invasion, Vande Hei climbed aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule to come back to Earth. He sat shoulder to shoulder with two cosmonauts as their capsule departed from the Russian side of the station and landed in Kazakhstan.


ROB NAVIAS: A nominal entry, a perfect landing, a bullseye touchdown, as the Russian search and recovery forces in the Mi-8 helicopters begin the process of landing sequentially. There's one of those helicopters...

BRUMFIEL: But as the war in Ukraine wears on, there are signs that the relationship may be changing. Some of Russia's other partners have stopped working with it in space, and the head of Russia's space agency has signaled that they might want to withdraw from the space station collaboration.

SCOTT: So today on the show, how a war down here on planet Earth is changing life up in space.

BRUMFIEL: And what those changes say about the limits of science as a tool for diplomacy.

I'm Geoff Brumfiel.

SCOTT: And I'm Aaron Scott. And you are listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SCOTT: OK, Geoff, so I guess the first thing I'm wondering about is how the U.S. and Russia started working together in the first place because, I mean, for most of the 20th century, they were rivals, right?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. That's what I thought. But the collaboration, it turns out, actually goes all the way back to Sputnik.

SCOTT: Sputnik, as in the Soviet satellite that launched in 1957. I thought that Sputnik was actually the start of the space race.

BRUMFIEL: That's the way it's taught. But I called this historian named Elena Aronova at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And she told me that Sputnik was actually part of a big global scientific project. It was called the International Geophysical Year.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are now living in the International Geophysical Year and the launching of the first Earth satellite will certainly be a red-letter day on the calendar.

BRUMFIEL: The Geophysical Year involved scientists from around the world. They were collecting data on all sorts of things - ocean currents, the upper atmosphere. And it was sold as this great symbol of global cooperation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: An Australian contribution to the 62-nation program concerns the visual study of the distant stars.

BRUMFIEL: But Aronova told me it actually had a second purpose. The U.S. and Russia were both developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

ELENA ARONOVA: In order to develop those technologies - ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles - you have to understand the environment.

BRUMFIEL: So global measurements of the atmosphere made the missiles more accurate. Measuring ocean currents helped with things like the development of submarines to carry the missiles. Even seismic stations can be used to listen in on nuclear testing.

ARONOVA: It's kind of a means for, you know, governance and scientific intelligence. And scientific intelligence is - it's better than spying, right?

SCOTT: Yeah. Sharing scientific data is better than stealing it through spying. As a science podcast, we love the sound of that. Let's fast-forward. How is it going now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, yeah, fast-forward a bunch, then to the Cold War and all that stuff, and it turns out it's kind of similar. You know, there's a similar tone to everything. So today, the U.S. and Russia work closely aboard the International Space Station. And in a recent Senate hearing, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the war in Ukraine isn't going to change that.


BILL NELSON: I see nothing that has interrupted that professional relationship, no matter how awful Putin is conducting a war with such disastrous results in Ukraine.

BRUMFIEL: And, you know, he spoke in sort of gauzy tones about the spirit of cooperation even in tough times and all that stuff, how the U.S. and Soviet astronauts and cosmonauts worked together during the Cold War. But then he also said this.


NELSON: You can't operate the space station without both. The Russians had the propulsion, the attitude control. The U.S. has the electricity production.

SCOTT: OK, so they've actually built the station in a way where some of the systems are Russian and then some are American. So really, the space station on one hand is this symbol of how nations can work together, and on the other hand, it's built in such a way that just on a practical level, they need each other. You can't just kind of disentangle it or one of them take a hike and the other stays up there.

BRUMFIEL: Right. I mean, not at the moment. You know, they both are also benefiting, you know, through the scientific work they're doing on the station, through learning how to live in space over extended periods. And maybe most importantly, the space station is giving NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts a destination, which is really central to their programs. But there are signs that the war in Ukraine is changing things.

SCOTT: How so?

BRUMFIEL: So, first of all, it has completely ruptured Russia's scientific collaborations with Europe. So, for example, there's this big particle physics laboratory in Switzerland called CERN. They've suspended Russia's membership there. Some other scientific and medical organizations have followed suit. And then there's the European Space Agency.


JOSEF ASCHBACHER: There's a consequence of the war in Ukraine. The member states of ESA have put significant sanctions on Russia.

BRUMFIEL: That was the ESA's director general, Josef Aschbacher, speaking at a NASA press conference. ESA was supposed to launch a rover to Mars aboard a Russian rocket, but it suspended that launch. It's also kicked Russia out of its lunar exploration program.

SCOTT: Oh, wow. So what has Russia's reaction been to that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Russia's kind of taken a tit-for-tat approach. They have canceled some launches from Europe's main spaceport. And speaking on state television, the head of Russia's space agency - this really prickly politician named Dmitry Rogozin - recently suggested that Russia may want to abandon the International Space Station.


DMITRY ROGOZIN: (Non-English language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: "The decision has already been made," he said. The U.S. would get a year's notice, so this isn't something that's going to happen overnight.


BRUMFIEL: And I should say that Rogozin is known for making pretty bombastic threats, you know? So on the one hand, he's claiming they might pull out. But then in early June, Russia launched another supply mission to the ISS and brought up food and all the other things that its capsules bring to the station.

SCOTT: All right, Geoff, so we've been talking about kind of the grand geopolitical level, the theater around the space station. But I'm really curious. I mean, up there in space, this is a little tin can full of people who are living together every day, crammed in there. How is all of this playing out in their lives?

BRUMFIEL: That's really hard to say. I mean, astronauts are as much diplomats as they are astronauts. And as you heard there, astronaut Mark Vande Hei, at the beginning of all this, he was very careful with his words. But some observers of the station and activities there have noticed a more sort of nationalistic tone coming from the Russian side. So Russian and Soviet-era paraphernalia has been showing up at the station. And during a spacewalk back in April, two Russian cosmonauts unfurled this banner known as the Victory Banner.


UNIDENTIFIED COSMONAUT: (Non-English language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: And this actually dates from the Soviet Union days. It celebrates Russia's Victory Day against the Nazis in 1945. But the banner is also seen all over Ukraine. Russian forces tend to put it up whenever they take a city.

SCOTT: Wow. So, I mean, are we, like, looking at the possibility of fisticuffs breaking out, or...

BRUMFIEL: You know, I think that remains pretty unlikely. But I spoke to retired astronaut Scott Kelly, who lived on the station for almost a year and speaks pretty good Russian. And he says many of his cosmonaut buddies on the ground really support this war.

SCOTT KELLY: At least one guy honestly believes that they were in danger, imminently, of being invaded by NATO and Ukrainian Nazis, and they are just defending themselves.

BRUMFIEL: And they're texting him all sorts of stuff to try and prove the U.S. is actually behind this war.

SCOTT: So, Geoff, it sounds like the tensions are ratcheting up. The Europeans are already cutting ties. The Russians say they might want to, as well. Is this it? I mean, could the U.S. and Russia stop working together on the space station?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it seems unlikely that the Russians will actually detach their parts of the station and fly away.

KELLY: Maybe they wouldn't even come apart. Almost like they've, you know, been, like, fused together due to the harsh environment.

BRUMFIEL: But Kelly does think that NASA should get ready to take over the Russian functions aboard the station just in case they do decide to leave.

KELLY: It would be really, really hard. But I think NASA is great at doing really, really hard things.

SCOTT: I mean, I guess the next question is, should the U.S. stop working with Russia?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Like, is there a moral imperative? We've seen other groups make this decision. Kelly says, for his part, he wants to see the station continue. But he acknowledges this. As the atrocities on the ground stack up, he's starting to think there may be a point where the two sides should just call it quits.

KELLY: At some point, things like murdering innocent people, rape, genocide transcend the importance of space cooperation.

BRUMFIEL: But the historian Elena Aronova has a very different view of all this. She thinks working together on the space station may be the right thing to do, no matter how bad the war gets.

SCOTT: Why is that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, being a historian, she thinks a lot about the past and, in particular, the end of World War I.

ARONOVA: After the First World War and the defeat of Germany, there was this massive boycott of, you know, everything German, including German scientists.

BRUMFIEL: It was part of this much broader effort to isolate and punish Germany for the war. And, of course, we know that really backfired.

SCOTT: Right, because those harsh sanctions and boycotts were what helped create the conditions for the Nazi Party to come to power.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. And obviously, that didn't just come about because of the scientific stuff. But as we discussed at the start, science is one of those rare areas where even adversaries can sometimes find common ground. And especially when times are tough, that common ground can be really valuable.

SCOTT: Science is a source for optimism. Thank you for sharing this story with us, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Aaron.


SCOTT: This episode was originally produced for Morning Edition and edited by Will Stone. It was produced for SHORT WAVE by Thomas Lu, edited by Gisele Grayson, who is also our senior supervising editor, and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson with help from Margaret Cirino. Special thanks to Alina Selyukh. Beth Donovan is our senior director and Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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