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Despite U.S.-Russia Tensions, the First All-Commercial Flight to ISS is Still On

An initial launch is set for late March, officials confirmed.

The United States and Russia are maintaining their peaceful, working relationship in space despite the crisis in Ukraine, a senior NASA official said on Monday—but America’s space agency is weighing its options if Russia does not hold firm on its responsibilities associated with the International Space Station.

“We are not getting any indications at a working level that our [Russian] counterparts are not committed to the ongoing operation of the [ISS]. We, as a team, are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago,” NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders said during a press briefing. “Obviously, we understand the global situation where it is. But—as a joint team—these teams are operating together.”

The virtual briefing was held by Axiom Space to preview the launch of Ax-1. 

Slated for March 30 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Ax-1 will mark the first all-commercial crewed launch to the ISS in history. SpaceX is a key partner in this pursuit and will fly the four-person, multinational crew to the orbiting outpost for a 10-day mission that will enable a variety of research experiments. It’s one part of a broader agreement between NASA and Axiom, through which the latter intends to build module extensions to the ISS that could eventually become the first fully commercial space station.

“This mission is kind of the flag-bearer for not only a standard for private astronaut missions of the future, but the future of research in microgravity,” Axiom’s Director of In-Space Research and Manufacturing Christian Maender said.

But the effort is also unfolding against a backdrop of conflict on Earth sparked by Russia’s ongoing, large-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

In response to U.S. sanctions meant to impact its space and technology assets in the early aftermath, Russia threatened the future of cooperation on the ISS. Multiple nations partner to run the one-of-a-kind space station, which is separated into an American and a Russian segment.  

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Station (ISS) from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or...Europe?" Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter. “There is also the possibility of a 500-ton structure falling on India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?”

During the briefing on Monday, Ax-1 Crew Commander Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and Axiom vice president, said that most of the activities related to Ax-1 will be concentrated within the United States’ segment. 

He and others confirmed the plans for Ax-1 haven’t changed amid the global tension. 

Still, corporate players’ involvement could pose new complexities in the modern conflict. Elon Musk on Saturday activated the services of his satellite-based communications service Starlink—operated by SpaceX—over Ukraine, responding to pleas from Ukrainian officials for secure communications against Russia.

Starlink ground terminals have already arrived in the country, according to a tweet by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister for digital transformation. 

Currently, there are some 1,600 Starlink satellites in very low earth orbit, providing broadband service to select areas of the world as part of what Musk has called a “beta program.” The service requires a kit that includes a receiving dish. The constellation offers speeds of between 100 and 200 megabytes per second. Musk has said he eventually wants to get to 42,000 satellites. 

NASA’s Lueders explained in the briefing that operations between the U.S. and Russia connected to space and the ISS are “nominal.”

“Obviously, we're continuing to monitor the situation. But, you know, our control centers are operating nominally together,” she explained. “We've operated in these kinds of situations before and both sides always operated very professionally and understand at our level the importance of this fantastic mission and continuing to have peaceful relations between the two countries in space.”

Lueders further noted that while NASA has no “backup plans” in development at this point for operating the ISS without Russia, officials are considering additional capabilities and new means to be operationally adaptive with cargo providers like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, to be safe as the conflict persists.

“It would be very difficult for us to be operating on our own. The ISS is an international partnership that was created as an international partnership with joint dependencies, which is what makes it such an amazing program,” she said. “As a team, we are looking at where we may have operational flexibilities. But it would be a sad day for international operations if we can't continue to peacefully operate in space—and as a team, we are doing that.”

Patrick Tucker contributed to this article.