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To this retired commander, the ISS was the last good bond between the U.S. and Russia

A Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station in April 2014.
Terry Virts
A Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station in April 2014.

In 1975, a handshake in space heralded an era of cooperation between unlikely partners.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission was the first joint space mission between the U.S. and Soviet space agencies. Spacecraft from each country docked in orbit, and the world watched as Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts embraced more than 100 miles from Earth. The mission was a powerful symbol of de-escalation after years of Cold War geopolitical tensions.

Decades later, the U.S. and Russia jointly built the International Space Station, an enduring symbol of global scientific collaboration in space. But that long partnership may be coming to an end.

Russia announced last week that it is planning to quit the program after 2024.

Retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut Terry Virts commanded the ISS in 2014 and 2015, shortly after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

He says that without the ISS, there isn't a single good thing left in U.S.-Russia relations – and after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he sees little reason for the countries to continue working together in space.

He joined All Things Considered to share what it was like working with Russian cosmonauts and the implications of their exit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On working with Russian cosmonauts

It was one of the highlights of my time in space. I tried to really have us be one crew – I didn't want the American segment and the Russian segment not to see each other. So at night, I would take my dinner, put it in a Ziploc bag and float down to the Russian segment. And we had a great time. We listened to the radio. They told jokes. They taught me a lot of Russian words that I didn't learn in class – they called it the Cultural Program. I've maintained a friendship with them.

It was probably my proudest accomplishment at NASA, keeping that crew together during 2015 when we were in space during Crimea, the civil war, and the sanctions.

Crewmembers of the ISS Expedition 43, commanded by Terry Virts (center left), affix their mission patch to the vehicle.
Terry Virts / NASA
Crewmembers of the ISS Expedition 43, commanded by Terry Virts (center left), affix their mission patch to the vehicle.

On Russia's annexation of Crimea, and how conflict on Earth affected his relationship with his Russian crewmates

You know, we would acknowledge [the conflict].

Russians would have a toasting session after the training was finished, and we would say: "Look, politics is politics. We're going to just focus on our mission."

There was a lot of angst and conflict between America and Russia and yet ... you could count on one finger the number of good [aspects of] international relations between the West and Russia – and that was the space station.

On how Russia's exit will impact the operation of the ISS

The one requirement of the space station is to have the Russian rockets. We decided 20 years ago to cancel our own propulsion module, and so the only real significant rockets [are on the Russian side].

I think we could build [our own rockets] pretty quickly, but right now we're dependent on the Russian rockets to maintain the station's orbit.

On Russia's next move in space

A Russian official "recently announced" [the plan to leave the ISS] and I think that's the key to this whole discussion, because Russian officials announce things all the time. And most of the time, they're lying. Most of the time they change their mind.

So I don't know what's going to happen. I do know that you can't trust anything that comes from Russian officials. They said they weren't going to invade Ukraine. They said they wouldn't kill civilians in Ukraine. And yet they've done these things.

If they leave ISIS, either they build their own space station – but that I don't think that's going to happen, they just won't get that done – or they partner with the Chinese. And a Russian-Chinese partnership is going to be a much, much different dynamic. The Chinese are going to be the boss in that partnership. We've had a great partnership with Russia. We've treated them with respect; it's been an equal marriage. And that's not going to be the case with China. Their eyes are going to be opened when they have to deal with the Chinese. So they're in a corner.

On the geopolitics of collaboration in space

I would love to continue cooperating with the Russians. I have a lot of great friends in the Russian space program, but I think for that to happen they need to leave Ukraine and pay for the damage they've done in Ukraine.

What we're doing right now, by actively engaging with the Russians in space exploration, it's the equivalent of [going on] an expedition to the Arctic in 1941 with Germany. And I don't think that's good.

We don't allow the Chinese on the space station because of their egregious human rights record, and I don't know why we're promoting and growing our cooperation with Putin when he's starting war in Europe.

This story was adapted for the web by Kai McNamee.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.