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A retired ISS commander weighs in on Russia's decision to leave

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI LEONOV: We are looking forward now to shaking hands with you aboard Soyuz.

CHANG: That's a Soviet cosmonaut greeting American astronauts on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, when spacecraft from the Soviet Union and the U.S. docked in orbit. Decades later, the U.S. and Russia jointly built the International Space Station, an enduring symbol of global scientific collaboration in space. And now 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 has commanded the ISS and spent over seven months in space. He joins us now. Welcome.

TERRY VIRTS: Thanks so much for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. First, can I just ask you, what was it like working with Russian cosmonauts during your time on the ISS?

VIRTS: You know, 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 and not to see each other. So at night, I would take my dinner, put it in a Ziploc bag and float down the Russian segment.

CHANG: (Laughter).

VIRTS: 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.

CHANG: Uh-huh (laughter).

VIRTS: They called it the cultural program. And, you know, I've maintained a friendship with them. And it was - probably my proudest accomplishment at NASA was keeping that crew together during 2015, when we were in space during Crimea and the civil war and the sanctions and everything.

CHANG: You mention Crimea. Did that conflict in any way affect your relationship with your Russian crewmates?

VIRTS: You know, we would acknowledge it when we would finish a training program. And the Russians kind of do things right. They would have a toasting session after the training was finished. But 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 the space station was the one place - it was the one and only place - you could count on one finger the number of good international relations between the West and Russia, and that was the space station.

CHANG: Wow. The space station was literally above the fray.

VIRTS: Literally and figuratively.

CHANG: I understand that the space station was designed specifically to be interdependent on each country's components. Like, the satellite needs Russian rockets. So how will Russia's departure affect operations, you think?

VIRTS: Well, you just - now that 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 right now - we could build some, I think, pretty quickly. But right now, we're dependent on the Russian rockets to maintain the station's orbit. And in the opening line, you said, a Russian official recently announced. 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.

CHANG: Oh, so you're still not sure that Russia will, indeed, leave the ISS?

VIRTS: I have colleagues who have said, hey, don't worry (laughter). So I don't know what's going to happen. I do know that you can't trust anything that comes from Russian officials. You know, 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.

CHANG: Right. What's Russia's next move in space, you think?

VIRTS: They just don't have a lot of options. Either they kind of put their tail between their legs and say, we didn't really mean that. What we meant was blah, blah, blah, and they'll kind of just try and stay on the ISS. If they leave the ISS, either they build their own space station - but 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.

You know, 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. They're gonna - their eyes are gonna be opened when they have to deal with the Chinese. So they're in a corner.

CHANG: Yeah. It sounds like you think collaboration in space - or the opportunity for collaboration in space - is a powerful diplomatic tool.

VIRTS: 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, let's have an expedition to the Arctic in 1941 with Germany. And I don't think that's good. Look, 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.

CHANG: Retired Air Force Colonel and NASA astronaut Terry Virts - thank you very much for your time today.

VIRTS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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
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.