Astronaut Michael López-Alegría: “It will be uncomfortable to watch smoke over Ukraine from space”

On March 30, the Spanish-American pilot will lead the first private mission to the International Space Station, where he will share a bunk with Russian cosmonauts amid the ongoing war of Ukraine 

The International Space Station is a bit like a six-bedroom house spinning around Earth, but 400 kilometers away. At such a distance, life perception changes abruptly. Astronauts refer to this as the “Overview Effect”. A feeling of intense brotherly love for the human race takes over when observing the fragile blue sphere floating in the vastness of space. Sixty-three-year-old Michael López-Alegría, born Madrid and raised in the US, experienced this spine-tingling connection with humanity on four trips to space between 1995 and 2007. On March 30, he will set out on his fifth tour, but this time it will be in a very different. context

Assuming the invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing in two weeks’ time, López-Alegría will be able to see smoke plumes from Russian shelling. The astronaut, who retired from NASA a decade ago, is now vice-president of the American company Axiom Space and will be commanding the first private mission to the International Space Station. He will take with him three wealthy businessmen from Canada, Israel and the US, who have each paid over $50 million for the 10-day trip. The four visitors will share the floating house with three Russian cosmonauts, while on Earth below, a new Cold War is in danger of developing.

The director-general of Russia’s Space Agency, Dimitri Rogozin, has issued the threat of the International Space Station plummeting to earth if sanctions against Russia remain in place. The structure – jointly managed by the US, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada – relies on Russian engines to remain in orbit. The team led by López-Alegría will leave earth aboard a Space X spacecraft operated by the US Company owned by tycoon Elon Musk, who has privatized space transportation. Last week, Musk publicly challenged the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and also engaged in an exchange of insults with Rogozin. The situation surrounding the ISS is potentially explosive.

Question. You have spoken many times about the overview effect of seeing the blue sphere of planet Earth, without visible borders. On this occasion, will you be able to see smoke from the war in Ukraine?

Answer. Initially, yes. There are some horrific but magnificent photographs of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when an American [Commander Frank Culbertson] was aboard the ISS, which was flying over the New York City area.

Image | Title “September 11, 2001″

Image Caption: Image of New York City taken from the International Space Station, on the morning of September 11, 2011, after the World Trade Center attacks.

Q. The International Space Station has generally been an oasis of peace and coexistence between countries. What do you expect to encounter now?

R. I wrote Tom Marshburn, my partner who will be in command of the ISS when we get there, who explained to me that everything is the same as usual onboard. They avoid talking about politics and are cooperating and eating together, as always.

Q. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, astronauts at the ISS have been keeping a low profile. There haven’t been, for example, any images published of the crew together. Are you thinking about some kind of gesture with the Russian cosmonauts [who subsequently arrived in suits bearing the colors of the Ukraine flag]?

A. Finding words to avoid implications of blame is difficult. Saying that we must all live in peace, as logical as it may sound, will not offend the cosmonauts because I believe they have a slightly different mindset; but it could offend someone in Putin’s government, who could interpret it as an attack.

Pull quote: “American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts avoid talking about politics”

Q. You will arrive at the International Space Station in a rather tense context, with Elon Musk at loggerheads with the director-general of Russia’s space agency, even going so far as to challenge him to a fight.

A. People like Elon Musk and Dimitri Rogozin can do whatever they want. Having a certain position and – although it would be advisable to keep their counsel – they are people who usually speak their minds. We, however, must take the potential impact of our words into account. I believe it’s best to keep quiet in public to avoid further friction.

Q. Rogozin has issued the threat that Russia could end its involvement with the International Space Station and bring it down to earth, literally. You were involved in the construction of the ISS. Is it possible for it to drop on our heads?

A. Yes, it will fall, but what we are trying to do is to make sure it falls in an uninhabited place, in the Southern Pacific Ocean. We use Russian propulsion to keep the station in orbit. Without this, after a while, it would certainly drop. I am quite confident that, if they made such a decision, we could come up with a solution. What is certain is that the ISS cannot operate without the Russians, but neither can it operate without the other side, which includes the Americans. We supply most of the electricity, communications, etc. They provide this propulsion. This has always been the case Despite Rogozin’s statements, I don’t think it’s going to reach that point.

Q. Especially with astronauts in place.

A. It [the ISS leaving orbit] wouldn’t happen overnight. It would take months or even years. It is a very predictable process. People would surely leave the station ahead of time.

Image | Title “Axiom Space”

Image Caption: Michael López-Alegría, second left, in zero-gravity flight aboard an Axiom Space aircraft with his fellow mission members.

Q. On Monday, Rogozin floated the threat of creating a Russian military space station. Is that possible? What purpose would it serve?

A. It makes no sense at all; there is no advantage to be gained by having this type of platform with people on board. In the past, during the 1970s, the Russians maintained space stations, mostly to take photographs. Today, we have satellites with ultra-high-definition cameras. It’s pointless.

Q. Rogozin recently posted a video on social media of Russian technicians removing the flags of the United States and other countries from the Soyuz rocket [the Russian vehicle that has monopolized the launch of manned missions over the last decade, until the arrival of Space X in 2020]. Rogozin suggested that, in the absence of Russian technology, the United States could fly on something else, like broomsticks.

A. A Space X engineer said: “Time to let the American broomstick fly”, on a launch that took place after Rogozin’s statement [a satellite launch in a rocket operated by the American company, on March 9]. Space X technology is in no way inferior to any other.

Q. On March 6, a former American astronaut, Scott Kelly, suggested Rogozin find a job at McDonald’s because Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, can’t do anything without cooperation from NASA and the European Space Agency.

A. I am fully convinced that, without the International Space Station, Roscosmos wouldn’t have much to do, because, in the field of manned flights, it’s the only thing they are currently involved with. There are no concrete plans for building another station or returning to the Moon.

Pull quote: “All the astronauts who have experienced the overview effect hope there will be no more wars”

Q. You speak Russian and served as Director of Operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, near Moscow, between 1996 and 1997. What’s your relationship with your Russian colleagues like now?

A. It remains the same. As Tom Marshburn, who is currently in the station, advised me to do, I avoid talking politics with them.

Q. It would be uncomfortable to look out of the window and see smoke over Ukraine.

A. It would be very uncomfortable, but I believe that they have the same mentality to avoid provocation.

Q. You were a combat pilot in the 1980s. Did you ever engage in combat?

A. Never. I served in an operational squadron based in Rota [Cádiz] and we were involved in various activities: terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro, an Italian ship, and our squadron was able to help find the hijackers after they left the ship. I was also involved in another hijacking, of TWA Flight 847.

Q. A combat pilot is trained to – if the situation arises – push a button and fire a missile. After experiencing the overview effect, would you be capable of doing so?

A. That’s a very interesting question. I’m trained to do what it takes at the given moment, but I don’t know how I would react in that moment today. At the end of the day, you place your faith in it being an act in defense of democracy or human rights; but there is an internal conflict in that you want to improve society, but the act itself is one of violence. It’s hard.

Q. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan displayed an image of Earth as a “Pale Blue Dot” in space and said: “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph, they could become… masters of a fraction of a dot”. You will now actually be able to see this.

A. All of us astronauts who have experienced the overview effect wish there would be no more war, no more hunger, and no more disease. The world doesn’t like that, but we would like to influence it so that we all become a little more tolerant and understand each other a little better.

Pull quote: “At the moment space travel is not democratic, but we have to start heading in that direction”

Q. When traveling to space in 1991, and coming back to Earth in 1992, Sergei Krikalev returned to a world in which the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Have you ever thought that something like that could happen to you? That there could be a nuclear war on Earth and you could be the only human beings left, in space.

A. I hadn’t thought about that before to be honest, it’s pretty dark. I have trust in humankind.

Q. You are vice-president of Axiom Space, and your company is planning to launch the first module to build the world’s first commercial space station in 2024, which will initially be connected to the ISS. When could this private station be completed?

A. We launch the first module in 2024; six months later, we’ll launch a second module, and another six months later, a third module. Then we will wait for NASA and the other International Space Station partners to decide whether to bring it down. At that point, we will send the fourth module, which provides most of the power. Upon its arrival and after checks have been made to ensure everything is in perfect working order, we will disengage and the International Space Station will drop into the Pacific six months after that. The first module will be fully operational almost upon arrival, and we will be able to host astronauts and our clients, but it will not be an independent station until politicians decide to end the International Space Station.

Q. When could that happen?

A. It is expected to be around 2030.

Q. Do you believe that there could be another private space station besides yours by 2030?

A. I believe so and I hope so, because competition is important for generating an economy in Earth’s orbit. There has to be more than one consumer and more than one service provider. These could be American companies. China already has a station, not a commercial one, but they are willing to accept private clients. I know NASA is encouraging the development of stations, so they can spend the money they will save in other areas, such as returning to the Moon. This is the only way to operate platforms such as ours as a client. It’s pretty much the same as booking a night in a hotel, without having to be the hotel owner.

Q. You have said that space travel will eventually become a democracy, but your crew are paying $55 million each for this trip. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, paid $20 million twenty years ago. It is now even more expensive than it was and it doesn’t appear to be democratizing much.

A. I agree, and I am the first to admit that it is not democratic at all at the moment, but we have to start heading in that direction. We are reflecting the costs of putting people into orbit. It was cheaper a decade ago. Tito went with the Russians. Today, we have to wait for other companies, like Boeing, and maybe other companies we aren’t aware of yet, to compete with Space X to drive prices down. I don’t see another way of doing it.

Q. Do you believe that regular folk will be able to travel to space one day?

A. I don’t know how long it will take, but I am convinced that one day that moment will come. Commercial aviation started a century ago and, at that time, only rich people could afford to fly.