(Reuters) – Three Russian cosmonauts were due to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday, continuing a more than two-decade Russian-U.S. presence aboard the orbiting outpost despite heightened ground tensions between Moscow and Washington .

The Soyuz spacecraft carrying the new team of cosmonauts was scheduled to lift off at 15:55 GMT (11:55 a.m. Eastern Time) from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin a more than three-hour journey to the space station.

Soyuz Commander Oleg Artemyev will lead the team, joined by two spaceflight rookies, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, for a science mission aboard the ISS that is expected to last six and a half months.

They will join the station’s current crew of seven to replace three due to return to Earth on March 30 – cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov and US NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

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Vande Hei will have logged a NASA record 355 days in orbit when he returns to Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz capsule with his two cosmonaut peers.

Three NASA astronauts – Tom Marshburn, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron – and his German teammate Matthias Maurer from the European Space Agency remain on board the ISS with the newcomers until the next rotation a few months later.

These four crew members arrived together in November aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon ship launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin a six-month stay in orbit.

Launched in 1998, the research platform orbiting about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth has been permanently manned since November 2000 while being operated by a US-Russian-led partnership including Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.

The latest personnel change at the ISS comes as the sustainability of the longstanding US-Russian collaboration in space is tested by heightened antagonism between the two former Cold War adversaries over the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

As part of US economic sanctions against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, US President Joe Biden ordered high-tech export restrictions against Moscow which he said were designed to “degrade” the Russian aerospace industry, including its space program.

Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, immediately went wild in a series of tweets suggesting US sanctions could ‘destroy’ the ISS teamwork and lead the space station itself to fall from its orbit.

A week later, Rogozin retaliated by announcing that Russia would stop supplying or servicing Russian-made rocket engines used by two American aerospace suppliers to NASA, suggesting that American astronauts could use “brooms” to get into orbit.

Around the same time, Moscow said it had halted joint ISS research with Germany and forced the 11th-hour cancellation of a British satellite launch from Baikonur.

The head of Roscosmos also said last month that Russia was suspending cooperation with European launch operations at the European spaceport in French Guiana.

The ISS itself was born in part as a foreign policy initiative aimed at improving US-Russian relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cold War hostility that spurred the US-Russian space race. original Soviet.

But Rogozin’s recent actions have prompted some players in the US space industry to rethink the NASA-Roscosmos partnership.

Ann Kapusta, executive director of the nonprofit space advocacy group the Space Frontier Foundation, told Reuters in a recent statement that the United States should end its collaboration with Russia.

Kapusta, former head of ISS research operations for NASA, said Rogozin’s “toxic behavior” “shows that there is no distance between Roscosmos and Putin’s war machine”, and that Russia can no longer be trusted to cooperate safely in space.

NASA officials, for their part, insist that the American and Russian ISS crews, while aware of events on Earth, were always working together professionally and that geopolitical tensions had no bearing. infected the space station.

Addressing the US space agency’s 60,000 employees in a video “town hall” on Monday, NASA chief Bill Nelson said: “NASA continues to work with all of our international partners, including State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the safety of ongoing operations” of the space station.

NASA released a fact sheet this week outlining the technical interdependence of the US and Russian segments of the space station.

For example, while American gyroscopes provide day-to-day control of the ISS’s orientation in space and American solar panels augment the Russian module’s power supply, Russia provides the propulsion used to keep the station in motion. orbit.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Jason Neely)

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