NASA chief tackles space station jitters amid Russian trolling

Increased tensions between Washington and Moscow are sparking concerns over the fate of the International Space Station and U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson delivers a "State of NASA" address at NASA headquarters in Washington on June 2.Al Drago / Reuters

MIAMI — The head of NASA pledged this week to continue joint space exploration with other countries even as his Twitter-trolling Russian counterpart suggested Moscow could crash the International Space Station into Earth or leave a U.S. astronaut behind.

“We have been meeting almost daily for three weeks to ensure the safe operations of the ISS,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday in a video town hall with the agency’s 60,000-member workforce, according to text of his remarks obtained by NBC News.

“I want to ensure you that we are laser focused on our people," Nelson said, noting that he “remains committed” to all seven astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station and that NASA is “continuing to work with all our international partners to continue safe operation of the ISS.”

Nelson’s remarks, which acknowledged the unprecedented “strain in the relationship between the Russian and U.S. governments as a result of their attack on the people of Ukraine,” are in sharp contrast to the bellicose provocations on Twitter by Dimitry Olegovich Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

Ever since the U.S. slapped sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle over the invasion of Ukraine, Rogozin and his agency have suggested that the space station could crash or that Russia might detach its module from the station and leave U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei — who is scheduled to hitch a ride back to Earth on a Russian spaceship on March 30. On Tuesday, Vande Hei broke the world record for most consecutive days in space, at 341.

The recent Russian escalations threaten nearly 50 years of joint space exploration between former Cold War adversaries that have put aside their terrestrial differences to pursue celestial missions. Now some space experts are calling on the U.S. to consider ending the International Space Station partnership with Russia, which began in 1987.

“NASA is on a very short list of entities still in public partnership with Russia — even Starbucks, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have stopped doing business with the regime,” said Ann Kapusta, who worked on the space station for NASA and is now the executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“We can’t ignore that Roscosmos is now part of Putin’s war machine,” she said. “If they haven’t already, NASA needs to begin the process of severing ties.”

Kapusta said a critical test in the relationship will come Friday, when Russia is scheduled to send three cosmonauts to the space station on a Soyuz rocket. It is scheduled to return March 30 with Vande Hei and two Russian cosmonauts.

But Vande Hei’s return was thrown into question March 5 when the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti posted a video on social media showing the Russian segment of the space station detaching after the cosmonauts say goodbye to Vande Hei. Described as “comedic” by the network, the video was created by Roscosmos.

U.S. officials weren’t laughing.

Rogozin dismissed claims that Russia was threatening to maroon Vande Hei as “hysterical,” and the Russian news agency TASS explicitly promised Monday that Vande Hei would be safely returned. The U.S. has backup plans to retrieve him in case that doesn't happen.

“It is noteworthy that the expected launch of three cosmonauts to the ISS is proceeding on Friday,” Nelson said in his town hall, which pointedly didn’t mention Rogozin.

Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 11, 2018.Yuri Kochetkov / AFP via Getty Images file

Nelson’s remarks were designed to reassure NASA workers and contractors while not escalating tensions with Russia — in line with Biden administration policy. But those familiar with Nelson’s thinking say he felt the need to speak up after Russia posted the space station video about Vande Hei.

The response by Nelson, a Democratic former senator from Florida, earned praise from GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“I am grateful for Bill’s leadership and his unwavering commitment to the safety of our astronauts, including Mark Vande Hei,” Rubio said in a written statement to NBC News.

While denying that Russia will strand Vande Hei, Rogozin issued a string of tweets on Feb. 24 suggesting Russia — which controls the space station’s engines — might abandon its responsibilities.

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China,” he wrote on his official Twitter page, according to a Reuters translation of his tweets. “Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?”

Rogozin also suggested that President Joe Biden has Alzheimer’s disease for imposing sanctions on Russia but then wrote that people should disregard his remarks. He also has engaged in Twitter wars with billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Scott Kelly, who previously held the record for most consecutive days in space and is the twin brother of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., also a former astronaut. Rogozin even tweeted an annotated “Tom and Jerry” video that cast Ukraine as the mouse and Russia as the cat an irony considering the former regularly outwits the latter in the cartoon.

Russia has severed ties with European space exploration companies and countries and halted the supply of rocket engines to the U.S. since its invasion of Ukraine, with Rogozin saying the U.S. should fly to the space station on “broomsticks.” Previously, he said the U.S. might have to use a trampoline to get to the space station. That was in 2014, when the Obama administration sanctioned him and other Putin allies in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine.

Four years later, Putin made Rogozin the head of Roscosmos, prompting concerns that he would unravel the apolitical cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in space. Rogozin has complained about the 2014 sanctions to Nelson, who supported them when he was a senator.

A former CIA station chief in Moscow, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, an expert in counterintelligence, said Nelson’s measured comments took “exactly the right approach,” adding, “We’ve got to be very careful right now not to fearmonger or get hysterical.”

Rogozin’s acting out, Mowatt-Larssen said, appears to be “classic bet-hedging” by a member of the Russian government who feels the need to act out to prove his loyalty to Putin.

Regardless of how much Putin approves or not, said Kapusta of the Space Frontier Foundation, the U.S. probably can’t count on Russia going forward.

“Space has always been apolitical, and we’ve had this hope that space can be a unifier for all humanity, and what you hear from anyone who has been up there is that it changes your perspective, that there are no lines dividing countries on the continents,” she said. “Space is beyond terrestrial aggression and structural tensions, and it’s just sad and disheartening that this one guy, backed by Putin, is destroying that.”