With Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening action against the U.S. should it inject itself in any capacity into the war he started with Ukraine, where is the most precarious place for an American to find himself at this particular time?
It is a place putting the individual in such a helpless situation that he cannot relocate until diplomacy or another actor intervenes to rescue him. But despite this, so unique is this individual’s situation that within minutes, he finds himself, at certain times of the day, just 250 miles away from either of the capitals of the two nations responsible for his fate.
The individual in question is Mark Vande Hei – a U.S. astronaut who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – specifically, in orbit 250 miles up in space onboard the International Space Station (ISS). A modular “habitable artificial satellite” for which the first component was launched in 1998 through the cooperative efforts of several nations, ISS has served as a temporary home in space for astronauts representing multiple countries.
March 30 will mark 355 days that Vande Hei has been in space, giving him the record for the longest time aboard ISS. He is orbiting alongside two Russian astronauts with all three scheduled to return to earth on March 30, courtesy of a Russian reentry vehicle. Their final earthly plunge is to be made in a capsule parachuting into Kazakhstan.
However, in a crass move triggered by resentment over U.S. sanctions implemented against Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian space officials are now suggesting Vande Hei may have to find an alternative way home.
Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscocosmos, Russia’s space agency, has threatened to isolate its part of the ISS, bringing Russian astronauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back while leaving Vande Hei behind as its sole resident. This is totally contrary to the cooperative spirit the two nations have shared from the outset of the launch of the ISS.
While U.S. sanctions are having a serious impact both on Russia’s aerospace and Roscocosmos programs, Rogozin’s deranged threat, obviously made with Putin’s concurrence, goes beyond the pale.
After initial reaction to the threat, Russian officials now reportedly are describing it as a joke. Don’t be too sure.
Vande Hei’s time in space was originally only to be six months; however, additional testing on the impact of space on the human body necessitated a six month extension.
Should the Russians make good on their threat, another space vehicle is available to bring Vande Hei back home. But it represents the height of irresponsibility for Putin to use our astronaut – precariously caught up in a situation where he is dependent upon Russian assistance, at least for the moment, to return home – as a political pawn. It demonstrates just how ruthless a dictator Putin really is.
Fearful of upsetting Putin, President Joe Biden has proven unhelpful in meeting several requests made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for assistance in defending against the Russian invaders. Accordingly, Zelensky reached out earlier to the founder of SpaceX, American entrepreneur Elon Musk, to provide internet satellite coverage which the Russians had cut off.
Without any hesitation, Musk did so. Should our do-nothing president fear bringing Vande Hei back home might also upset Putin, let us hope the astronaut has Musk’s phone number as we know the SpaceX executive will get him back home by whatever means necessary.
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