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The U.S. and Russia Signal Continued Cooperation—In Space, At Least

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A lot of people overlooked the 92-year-old man who attended the Wednesday, Oct. 5 launch of the latest crew to the International Space Station (ISS). He was there among the dignitaries, and, truth be told, he was easy to miss. His name is Tom Stafford, and he looks nothing like he did back in the days of the Gemini and Apollo programs, when he flew to space four times—on one occasion commanding 1969’s Apollo 10, during which he piloted his lunar module down to within 14,325 m (47,000 ft) of the moon’s surface, in a final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing which would come two months later.

But he’s equally known for a mission he flew six years later, in July 1975, as one of the two commanders of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project—the first joint, two-spacecraft mission between the U.S. and the old U.S.S.R. At the time, the feuding nations were at dagger points on Earth but wanted to show the world that in space, at least, it was possible for sworn enemies to be close friends. And it’s this same message Stafford’s presence was intended to convey this week.

Things have gotten nasty between Washington and Moscow again, ever since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions regime the U.S. and other Western nations have put in place in response. U.S.-Russian collaboration aboard the ISS at first seemed to be spared the growing enmity, but in July, Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, threatened that his country would quit the ISS partnership in response to the sanctions, with the split set to happen sometime after 2024. The high-ground of space, it seemed, had become just one more arena for the low business of politics.

But things have brightened since. In July, Rogozin was replaced as head of Roscosmos by Yury Borisov, and no sooner did the new boss take over than Russia backed off of its threat to abandon the ISS, saying merely that it has designs to build its own station—which may not be complete until the end of the decade—and only when that happens will it dissolve the space station partnership.

More immediately, Roscosmos and NASA also agreed to a new seat-swapping arrangement under which a NASA astronaut would fly aboard each Soyuz spacecraft headed for the ISS, and a Russian cosmonaut would, in turn, fly aboard each SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Just over two weeks ago, astronaut Frank Rubio took off aboard an ISS-bound Soyuz, and on-board the Crew Dragon for Wednesday’s launch was rookie cosmonaut Anna Kikina, only the fifth Russian woman in space.

Stafford, who was invited to the launch this week as a living symbol of U.S.-Russian space collaboration, did not address the press after the launch. But Sergei Krikalev, the head of Roscosmos’s human space flight program, did. And he clearly had the accomplishments of the veteran astronaut on his mind.

“We just continue what we started many years ago in 1975, when the Apollo-Soyuz crew worked together,” he said at a press conference after the launch. That continuation extends through 2024 at least, with more seat-swaps firmly scheduled, and others likely to follow.

The joint missions have more than symbolic value. Flying Americans and Russians together ensures that there is always at least one crew member aboard the station from each country, which is essential for station operations, since NASA astronauts are more familiar with the workings of the U.S. segment of the station, and Roscosmos cosmonauts are more adept at operating the Russian modules. None of this does away with geopolitics entirely, of course. On the ground, 400 km (250 mi.) below the ISS, the war in Ukraine continues to rage. But up above, at least, there is enduring peace.

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can sign up here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com