About a month ago, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, placing NATO on high alert and creating a shock wave felt around the world. One place that has been particularly resilient to the effects of this conflict is the International Space Station (ISS). Even as tensions mount and the heads of space agencies engage in an online war of words, astronauts and cosmonauts continue to work and live together in orbit.
On the other hand, there have been some clear attempts to drag the ISS into political turmoil. Case in point: the recent photo that shows three Russian cosmonauts wearing bright yellow and blue jumpsuits, the colors of the Ukrainian flag! Depending on who you ask, this was either a display of unity with the people of Ukraine or just a coincidence. Opinions vary, but this was likely nothing more than oddly fortuitous.
The image began circulating online as of Friday, March 18th. People were quick to respond on social media, with some claiming the colors were a deliberate statement about the war and others dismissing it right out the gate. As with anything that comes to our attention via social media and comes to dominate the news cycle, it is important to separate speculation and politics from what is established as fact.
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What We Know
As part of Expedition 66, the three cosmonauts – Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov – will spend the next six months aboard the ISS as part of a crew already consisting of two Russian cosmonauts, four Americans, and one German astronaut. Veteran cosmonaut Artemyev was the commander of the flight (Soyuz MS-21/67S), whereas Matveev and Korsakov were relative newcomers.
They launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 11:55 AM EDT (08:55 AM PDT) on Friday, March 18th, aboard the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft. They rendezvoused three hours and seventeen minutes later with the new Russian module (Nauka) aboard the ISS. Shortly after they emerged from their spacecraft, they stood for a photo-op with the members of Expedition 65: Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, Pyotr Dubrov, Anton Shkaplerov, Mark Vande Hei, Matthias Maurer, and Thomas Marshburn.
Artemyev, Matveev, and Korsakov are replacements for two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut – Dubrov, Shkapleroc, and Vande Hei – who will be heading home at the end of the month. For Vande Hei and Dubrov, who participated in Expeditions 64 and 65, their return to Earth will close out a record-setting flight. Having arrived at the ISS on April 9th, 2021, the pair will have spent 354 days in space.
Upon arrival at the ISS, Artemyev, Matveev, and Korsakov were welcomed by their colleagues with hugs. The occasion was live-streamed on NASA TV, and images taken by Roscosmos were made public shortly thereafter. In one image, we see the three cosmonauts standing with their colleagues – (left to right) Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, Pyotr Dubrov, Anton Shkaplerov, Mark Vande Hei, Matthias Maurer, and Thomas Marshburn – flanking them.
Artemyev, Matveev, and Korsakov all wore bright yellow jumpsuits with blue name tags, Expedition 66 patches, and the Russian flag emblazoned across the right breast.
“Sometimes Yellow Color is Just a Yellow Color”
First and foremost, this is NOT the first time that cosmonauts have worn this type of jumpsuit. Artemyev himself has worn the same uniform when visiting the ISS in the past. In an image posted to Twitter back in 2015, we see Aetemyev standing before the ISS Cupola in an identical yellow jumpsuit with blue patches and the Russian flag emblazoned across the chest.
Artemyev himself jokingly indicated that the motivations behind the choice of wear were not political. In a live-streamed press conference that accompanied their arrival, Artemyev quipped, “It became our turn to pick a color. We had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it. That’s why we had to wear yellow.”
Roscosmos was also quick to dismiss rumors and speculation regarding the cosmonauts’ choice of clothing, claiming that it was a fabrication by western media. The morning after the controversy began (Saturday, March 19th), Roscosmos’ press service stated:
“Sometimes yellow is just yellow. The flight suits of the new crew are made in the colors of the emblem of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which all three cosmonauts graduated from … to see the Ukrainian flag everywhere and in everything is crazy.”
Given the current political climate and the way cooperation in space has not been immune, it is understandable why some would choose to see this as a political statement. What could be more reassuring than to think that Russian cosmonauts – orbiting safely 420 km (260 mi) above Earth – were symbolically condemning a war that threatens international cooperation? Alas, this appears to have been anything but a coincidence.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s important to remind ourselves just how resilient the ISS and international cooperation in space has been.
Spillover into Space
Since the conflict began, people on all sides have attempted to allay fears and stress that cooler heads will prevail. This included a recent NASA FAQ that NASA issued in the wake of Roscosmos Director-General Dmitry Rogozin making threatening statements online. Of particular concern was a tweet where he asked what would happen if the Russian segment (which provides steerage and attitude control) withdrew from the ISS, causing it to “fall into the United States or Europe?“
This was around the same time Russian state television shared a video where the Russian segment was shown detaching from the ISS. In response, NASA’s FAQ assured people that no one party could throw its hatches shut and detach from the station. The highly-independent nature of the ISS’ operations (which ranges from life-support, electronics, and air) makes this impossible. They also reassured the public that Russia is committed to maintaining operations until 2024 (at the least).
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has also kept his cool and repeatedly emphasized the long-standing relationship between NASA and Russia, which goes all the way back to the Cold War. As he said in a recent interview with CBS News, this spirit of cooperation is on full display in the image of the three Russian cosmonauts, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their NASA and ESA colleagues:
“The interesting thing is, even back in 1975 during the Soviet Union, the Cold War, we were able to have cooperation in civilian space with the Russians, in (the) Apollo-Soyuz (project). And that has continued. This very day, three cosmonauts (are launching) from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station. They will join four Americans, two Russians and a German astronaut. That’s saying this cooperation, this professional relationship between our astronauts and cosmonauts, it’s consistent, and it’s going to stay.”
Efforts to reassure the public haven’t been one-sided either. While Roscosmos has been mute on Twitter and Facebook since early March, the state-controlled RIA News service has issued statements on their behalf. On March 5th, two posts were made on Telegram where Roscosmos stated that video of the Russian segments leaving the ISS was posted in jest:
“The Roskosmos television studio jokingly demonstrated the possibility of Russia withdrawing from the ISS project – the undocking of the Russian segment of the station, without which the American part of the project cannot exist.
“RIA NovostiTV studio “Roskosmos” in a comic form demonstrated the possibility of Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS project – the undocking of the Russian segment of the station, without which the existence of the American part of the project is impossible.”
According to TASS, another state-owned Russian media outlet, Roscosmos is not about to leave Vande Hei stranded aboard the ISS at the end of the month. This was what some concluded after watching the video of the Russian segment detaching, where Russian cosmonauts are shown hugging Vande Hei before batting all the hatches down.
If there’s a takeaway from all of this, it’s this: The ISS has been in continuous operation for over 30 years and endured tensions here on Earth before. Or, as Douglas Adams would say, “Don’t Panic!”
Further Reading: Spaceflight Now