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'They need the space program': Astronaut downplays concerns about Russia's threats to leave the International Space Station

Astronaut Chris Cassidy tells Y'all-itics that NASA has plans in place in case Russia abandons the International Space Station

DALLAS — Some of the fallout from Russian's invasion of Ukraine is now just 250 miles away.  

But it’s not in Texas.  

It’s above our heads, up in space.

That's because the Russian Federation is threatening to abandon the International Space Station.  

"In my mind, it's a little bit of a veiled threat -- like, OK, separate and see where you'll be," astronaut Chris Cassidy said on this week's episode of Y’all-itics. "There's a great deal of interdependence amongst all the countries on the space station."

There are astronauts. And then there are astronauts like Chris Cassidy.  

First selected by NASA in 2004, Cassidy is a veteran of three space flights and 10 spacewalks. He’s logged 378 days in space, as well as 54 hours and 51 minutes of spacewalk time. 

Cassidy is also a U.S. Navy SEAL, winning the Bronze Star after leading a nine-day operation against terrorists in Afghanistan.

Cassidy says NASA and all ISS partner countries are taking Russia’s threat seriously and are working on a Plan B (and C, D, E and F) should they make good on possibly exiting their space station obligations. But, he says, the Russians need us more than we need them.

"They need the space program," Cassidy said. "They need the financial support that comes from us paying up -- the United States, Japan, Canada, Europeans paying them for launch services, paying them for training and the Soyuz. That money keeps their organization afloat. Y'know, I don't know how long they would last if they were completely independent on their own, [using] their own budget."

Should the Russian Federation decide to stop cooperating on the ISS, Cassidy says closing the hatch that separates the two sides of the space station would be one of the first steps taken.  

The back half of the ISS, he says, contains Russian-provided equipment. The forward half contains the equipment supplied by Americans and its three other partner agencies from Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency.  

When it comes to some of the most basic functions keeping the ISS in space, the countries all depend on each other. The U.S., for instance, provides the power for the station. The Russians, in turn, have the ability to maneuver the ISS.

"So, there's a little bit of interdependency there that, if we did separate or go our separate ways, they'd have to figure out the power and we would have to figure out the propulsion," said Cassidy.

Cassidy says Russia, per its agreements, would have to provide a year's notice before leaving the International Space Station -- so there would be time to coordinate and make sure backup systems are in place. And Cassidy doesn’t think such a move would change business much for Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, which always has control over the International Space Station.

But, beyond the bolts, modules, engines and other technical issues that would have to be sorted out if the Russians bailed, Cassidy says there is also a personal connection that would be lost.

He's spent countless hours training in Russia, working with Russians on Russian equipment.   

"We eat dinner together," Cassidy says. "And I know their families. And I know their children. And vice versa. And so there's decades long friendships there. And the astronaut-cosmonaut side. And with the trainers and the language instructors. And the list goes on where I've had a lot of meals and a lot of social events and a lot of hard simulations and things that bond you as human beings."

In his post-astronaut career, Cassidy is now the President and CEO of the National Medal of Honor Museum currently being built in Arlington, Texas. That facility is scheduled to open in the Fall/Winter of 2024.

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