Astronaut and Waterbury native Rick Mastracchio landed safely aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule at 9:58 p.m. EST Tuesday evening, capping an eventful six months aboard the International Space Station both in orbit and on the ground as relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated.
Mastracchio traveled to the station with the Olympic torch and plenty of international optimism on Nov. 7, 2013. Shortly before his return to Earth on Tuesday, rising tensions between the United States and Russia led Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to declare that his country will no longer support the International Space Station past 2020 and will cease supplying rocket engines for U.S. military satellite launches. This move came in response to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea.
Russian engines are used on rockets manufactured by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to transport military satellites as well as unmanned spacecraft for NASA. The company’s Atlas V rocket, the hardware that uses the Russian engine, is also the same rocket that is slated to boost manned spacecraft from Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation to orbit.
ULA is currently the only company allowed to transport military hardware, as upstart SpaceX is currently locked out of the military launch business and is suing the federal government for the right to compete for Air Force contracts. SpaceX produces its rocket engines and spacecraft domestically.
Rogozin’s announcement cutting off ULA’s supply of engines happened just a week after ULA celebrated the lifting of an injunction SpaceX sought in a separate legal action. SpaceX contended that Rogozin profits personally from the sale of the engines which would be a violation of the recent U.S. sanctions. ULA says they have enough engines in stock to cover launches scheduled over the next two years and can shift to other launch hardware if necessary.
There is currently no threat of cutting off access to the Soyuz for flights to the ISS, but this week’s actions underscore the problem the U.S. faces in depending on the Russians for transport into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The U.S. currently does not have a flight-ready manned vehicle, although SpaceX plans to unveil a crewed version of its Dragon capsule on May 29. SpaceX is currently transporting cargo to and from the ISS aboard an unmanned Dragon spacecraft.
A busy mission for Mastracchio
It was business as usual aboard the station, with no visible tension among the American and Russian crew. Mastracchio conducted two unplanned spacewalks to repair a faulty coolant pump and a computer stored outside the station. His time outside the station landed Mastracchio in the all-time top 5 of long-duration spacewalkers.
The crew also welcomed three different cargo craft, one Russian and two commercial cargo ships from American companies — SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. The Orbital Sciences cargo capsule was the first from the company to reach the station from its Wallops Island, Virginia launch site. Launches from Wallops Island can be seen from Connecticut with the right weather conditions.
Mastracchio assisted with scientific experiments, including a human immune system activation and suppression study and a protein crystal growth research study looking for proteins responsible for Huntington’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. Crew health management was also a part of their efforts, as the U.S. and Russia are preparing to send two crew members up for a full year aboard the station to measure the impact of planned deep space missions beyond low earth orbit.
Mastracchio will return to the U.S. in a few days with plans to visit his hometown of Waterbury sometime in the near future.