Here’s why the Ukraine crisis won’t affect Russia, U.S. space collaboration

Updated 4:06 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014

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NEW: Former astronaut says both countries necessary for ISS

NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011

Its astronauts have no way to get to and from the international space station

Russian Soyuz capsules ferry U.S. astronauts

(CNN) —  

On Earth, the United States may be trading bitter accusations with Russia over Ukraine, but in space, it’s a different story.

But in space, it’s a different story.

The space collaboration between the two nations has survived other diplomatic kerfuffles – most recently, the war in Syria and asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden – and there’s no need to worry, NASA says.

“We do not expect the current Russia-Ukraine situation to have any impact on our civil space cooperation with Russia, including our partnership on the International Space Station program,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, pointing out that it’s in both countries’ best interests not to disrupt “operations that have maintained continuous human presence on orbit for over a decade.”

“It is in the best interest of all ISS partners not to allow disruption of operations that have maintained continuous human presence on orbit for over a decade.”

Right now, U.S. astronaut Mike Hopkins is aboard the Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts. He returns home aboard a Russian capsule on Monday.

A few weeks later, another American astronaut, Steven Swanson, joins another two Russians on a trip to the station aboard another Russian Soyuz craft.

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’Reluctant co-dependency’

The two nations can’t afford temporary tussles to upend a costly relationship – one that James Oberg, a former space engineer, describes as “reluctant co-dependency.”

In 2011, NASA retired its space shuttle fleet, its only means of getting to and from the station. Now, Russian Soyuz capsules ferry U.S. astronauts and cosmonauts, together with supplies that can fit in the smaller craft.

In turn, the United States brings to the table technology far more advanced than Russia’s capabilities, Oberg told Politico.

At the same time, many of the Russian systems are more reliable because they are simpler and have been operating longer, Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander, told CNN.

The space station itself has an intricate blend of both countries’ contributions – from U.S. solar arrays and power systems to Russian core life-support systems, to a navigation system that comes from both countries, he said.

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Americans and Russians train on each other’s systems, but one country can’t run the station alone, he said.

The mission control centers in Houston and Korolyov, near Moscow, have to coordinate commands sent to the station, he said.

“We need each other to operate the station,” Chiao said. “Otherwise we run the risk of losing that asset.”

Past disagreements

Russia and the United States have disagreed on various issues in the past – including most recently, the war in Syria, and Moscow’s granting of temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The extraterrestrial partnership has gone unscathed.

“NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have maintained a professional, beneficial and collegial working relationship through the various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship and we expect that to continue,” Beutel said.

Going about their days

Up in space, the crew members for International Space Station Expedition 38 are going about their regular days.

When they’re not busy conducting experiments, they play with floating food, exercise and document the spinning Earth with scenic pictures of various continents.

“Checked out our Sokul suits today in preparation for returning to Earth next Monday,” Hopkins tweeted this week. “Can’t believe it’s almost time!”