Dispatch

U.S. and Russia Find Some Common Ground—in Space

A joint U.S.-Russian experiment to study long-term space travel is a rare bit of cooperation between the two rivals.

Emirati Abdalla al-Hammadi performs a physical test in advance of the start of the SIRIUS-21 space simulation.
Emirati Abdalla al-Hammadi performs a physical test in advance of the start of the SIRIUS-21 space simulation in Moscow on Oct. 13.

MOSCOW—Ashley Kowalski has spent much of her career advancing international space cooperation at the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation in California, most recently as a project manager. Now, the 32-year-old American is going to put her passion to the test—by locking herself in a hermetically sealed capsule with five strangers for an eight-month simulated mission to space.

“Throughout my life I’ve tried to marry my work in the space industry with my love for different cultures,” said Kowalski, who has done previous fellowships in Germany, Russia, and China. “So this program stood out for me.”

On Nov. 4, Kowalski will join one other American, three Russians, and an Emirati inside the confined facility in a Soviet-era building on the outskirts of Moscow that’s meant to mimic as much as possible the conditions on long space journeys, including both the physiological and the psychological challenges. A barrage of daily tests will record the changes the aspiring astronauts undergo and relay the data to a team of researchers at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which has teamed up with NASA to launch the Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station, or SIRIUS. 

MOSCOW—Ashley Kowalski has spent much of her career advancing international space cooperation at the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation in California, most recently as a project manager. Now, the 32-year-old American is going to put her passion to the test—by locking herself in a hermetically sealed capsule with five strangers for an eight-month simulated mission to space.

“Throughout my life I’ve tried to marry my work in the space industry with my love for different cultures,” said Kowalski, who has done previous fellowships in Germany, Russia, and China. “So this program stood out for me.”

On Nov. 4, Kowalski will join one other American, three Russians, and an Emirati inside the confined facility in a Soviet-era building on the outskirts of Moscow that’s meant to mimic as much as possible the conditions on long space journeys, including both the physiological and the psychological challenges. A barrage of daily tests will record the changes the aspiring astronauts undergo and relay the data to a team of researchers at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which has teamed up with NASA to launch the Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station, or SIRIUS. 

The project is meant to gather data on how people cope physically and mentally with long-term confinement, a necessary prelude to longer space journeys to the moon or even Mars; the data will be made available to various space agencies. The international component of the experiment is important, because scientists hope that international crews working together on land could smooth the path to eventual joint exploration of Mars.

Oleg Blinov, the 43-year-old Russian captain of the SIRIUS-21 space simulation, shows his T-Shirt promoting the program in Moscow on Oct. 13.

Oleg Blinov, the 43-year-old Russian captain of the SIRIUS-21 space simulation, shows his T-shirt promoting the program in Moscow on Oct. 13.

SIRIUS and similar experiments not only could pave the way for future joint missions but also show how 30 years after the end of the Cold War, and amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, space remains a rare field of cooperation. The United States depended on Russia for years to deliver its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), an arrangement that bolstered Russia’s reputation as a reliable partner and ensured a steady revenue stream. In April, Russia extended its space cooperation agreement with the United States until 2030, ensuring joint work on the ISS will continue.

But that has been overshadowed in recent years by Russia’s adventurism in Europe, meddling in U.S. elections, devastating cyberattacks against U.S. targets, use of the energy weapon to choke Europe, and a sudden breakdown in relations between Russia and NATO this fall. In June, at a bilateral summit in Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin zeroed in on common interests such as cybersecurity and arms control as a way of maintaining some cooperation, and the Biden administration has continued to look for ways to reduce tension; space also fits the bill perfectly.

“There are areas where there’s a mutual interest for us to cooperate, for our people—Russian and American people—but also for the benefit of the world,” Biden said after the summit. 

Six folks in a tube may not be enough to defuse all the tensions between the two geopolitical rivals. But for those going inside—and the scientists watching from the outside—the stakes are still high. 

Humans have evolved over hundreds of millennia to thrive in an environment with oxygen, water, and gravity. NASA has spent years conducting earthbound experiments to see what happens when those basic conditions are missing, including paying people to lie in bed for months and experience the effects of muscle loss and bone degradation, which accelerates rapidly in an atmosphere of weightlessness. The SIRIUS volunteers won’t have to worry about either weightlessness or cosmic radiation. But the simulation offers them a chance to prove they have the right stuff and could meet at least some of the criteria for future travel to space. 

Igor Kofman of NASA’s Human Research Department

Igor Kofman of NASA’s Human Research Program in Moscow on Oct. 13.

“The process is somewhat similar to astronaut selection,” said Igor Kofman of NASA’s Human Research Program, which chose the two U.S. participants and two backups for this year’s mission, known as SIRIUS-21, from a pool of hundreds of candidates. In the past, far less attention was paid to the mental well-being of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews who pioneered early space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s. With longer missions on the horizon, a good psychological fit becomes even more important. 

The current crop of volunteers is being evaluated on their ability to adapt to new situations they cannot change, tolerance for isolation and confinement, and the unflappability required to spend extended periods of time with relative strangers.

Reinhold Povilaitis, a participant in the four-month SIRIUS mission in 2019 and now an employee of NASA’s Human Research Program, said he found it hard initially to adapt to the customs of his crew members, like the constant tea-drinking sessions of the Russians. “They may have bonded prior to going in, but they haven’t lived together,” he said of the current crop of volunteers. “And what they can tolerate at the beginning might not be the same at the end. So they find balance, hopefully, in the course of eight months.”

“This is a stressful situation,” said Oleg Blinov, a 43-year-old Russian space industry worker who will serve as captain of SIRIUS-21 and be responsible for safeguarding a sociable atmosphere among members of the crew and resolving any conflicts. “If we don’t remain upbeat, it’ll be difficult to get through it.”

Many previous ground simulations had only American participants, but Kofman said the international crew of SIRIUS-21 likely reflects the space crews of the future. “We’re hoping future missions will be multicultural,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to simulate those parameters and those conditions.”

Those conditions include plenty of physical discomforts to go with the isolation. Most of the time an astronaut spends on the ISS is spent assembling and maintaining the spacecraft, and the SIRIUS-21 volunteers will be subject to a daily schedule that is timed to the minute and designed to counteract boredom and mimic the workload of a real space flight. Exercise is daily; showers are once a week. Food rations include freeze-dried meals and powdered substances that solidify when mixed with hot water, and bathrooms are around the size of those on a Russian train. Communication with friends and family will be limited to an occasional email.

“This means being away from your family, from home comforts. That’s the sacrifice,” said Abdalla al-Hammadi, 35, a former Emirati test pilot and father of two who was chosen from around 1,000 applicants to take part in SIRIUS. The United Arab Emirates has a burgeoning space sector and plans to send its first astronauts to Mars in 2117. Hammadi hopes his involvement with SIRIUS will increase his grandson’s or great-grandson’s chances of being on that Mars mission. “I am giving this to my son, my son will give it to his son, and it will carry on,” he said. (Just before the experiment started, Hammadi learned that another Emirati volunteer would take his spot, and he would act as a backup.)

American Ashley Kowalski (left) takes part in a virtual reality docking simulation.

American Ashley Kowalski (left) takes part in a virtual reality docking simulation at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems on Oct. 13.

The UAE’s ambitions represent a shifting of the center of gravity in the space race. Russia for decades was one of the dominant powers, and even more so after the United States wound down its Space Shuttle program. But last year, SpaceX completed the first manned orbital flight from U.S. soil in almost a decade, breaking Russia’s monopoly and ushering in a new era of competition. Delivering astronauts to space on a rocket designed and manufactured by a private U.S. company, the SpaceX launch culminated a decadeslong effort to transform space into a new sphere of capitalist competition and rattled dominant Russian state enterprises that had inherited Soviet technology. (But not Soviet-level budgets: In 2020, the budget of Russian space agency Roscosmos was around $2.4 billion at current exchange rates; NASA’s was $22.6 billion.)

“From a historical point of view, Russia played a major role in space. But from today’s perspective, its influence is rapidly waning,” said Ivan Moiseyev, head of the Institute of Space Policy in Moscow. “The U.S. is an economic powerhouse in space, and Europe and China are beginning to exceed Russia in their potential.”

The end goal for most of the volunteers is to participate in a real orbital flight in the years to come, with SIRIUS a preview of that ultimate challenge. But if the space simulation is not enough to qualify them, it’s all in the name of advancing science, too. 

“This is probably the largest amount of data from an analog data study that anybody has ever collected,” Kowalski said. “At the end of the day, we’re doing something that’ll help human space flight. Maybe being an astronaut is not part of my future, maybe I don’t stay in the space industry. But at least I know that I was part of something bigger.”

Correction, Nov. 4, 2021: SIRIUS-21 crew member Ashley Kowalski is 32 years old; a previous version of this article incorrectly stated her age.

Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and RFE/RL.

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