When Russian astronaut Oleg Skripochka last set foot on earth in September, the first recorded case of Covid-19 was two months away and few outside of pathology circles knew what a “coronavirus” was.
Next week, the 50-year old will return to a planet drastically changed from the one he left. As he orbited the planet once every 92 minutes as commander of the International Space Station (ISS), a pandemic has spread across the world, infecting more than 1.5m people, placing entire populations under lockdown and killing about 90,000.
The 22-year old space station, which conducts research and scientific studies into space 400km above the earth, is one of the most prominent examples of US-Russian co-operation, under its joint management of Russia’s space agency and the Nasa of the US.
Despite the outbreak, Russia’s Roscosmos is determined to stick to its rocket launch and return schedule to keep the ISS functioning and fully equipped – all the while ensuring it remains perhaps the last human outpost completely free of Covid-19.
On the ground, work to get a replacement crew to the station has been complicated by the pandemic, especially after nine Roscosmos employees tested positive for the virus this week.
The virus’ impact has been “extremely negative,” Roscosmos general director Dmitry Rogozin told the FT, cutting off normal interactions with European space agencies and necessitating strict quarantines on the company’s engineering centres and spaceport.
The MS-16 spacecraft to replace the crew on the ISS is prepared for launch © Andrey Shelepin/Roscosmos/Reuters
One big concern has been to ensure that the two Russian and one American astronaut that set off on Thursday from the Russian-operated Baikonur spaceport in southern Kazakhstan to replace Mr Skripochka and his two crewmates were free of the virus.
“The international crew was placed in advance in strict isolation from all outside contact except for some professionals who are also under strict medical supervision,” Mr Rogozin said.
The crew of the launch, named MS-16, were deprived of the ritual farewell from their family and friends, and officials closed the cosmodrome to the public and journalists.
“We are fully confident that we will arrive at the ISS completely healthy,” said Chris Cassidy, the US astronaut who flew on MS-16 and will assume command of the ISS from Mr Skripochka. “For about a month now we have been following the rules of very strict quarantine, and we all feel great.”
Footage before the launch showed engineers and other officials wearing face masks before the astronauts in flight suits conducted pre-flight checks inside the rocket.
“We cancelled all the traditional events with the participation of the press [and] Baikonur city is quarantined where they are very closely watching the epidemiological situation,” Mr Rogozin said. “All of our staff, hundreds of people, have been tested for the virus and received a negative result, [but] we have returned home about 300 specialists, who are now in quarantine.”
The ISS has grown since its launch in 1998 as a 12.5m long module to a complex system of interconnecting elements the size of an American football pitch. While the coronavirus outbreak has quarantined entire cities, closed borders and grounded all but a small fraction of international flights, Roscosmos’ space programme is critical to ensure the ISS remains crewed, fuelled and stocked with essential supplies.
Since the closure of Nasa’s space shuttle programme in 2011 owing to cost concerns, Russia’s Soyuz rockets are the only way to get to and from the ISS. Delays to rocket projects by US private companies have forced Nasa to continue paying for seats on the Russian launches in order to maintain a US presence at the station.
On April 25, a Russian Progress rocket will follow the MS-16 from Baikonur to deliver two tonnes of cargo to the ISS, including almost 700kg of fuel, plus food, water and medicine alongside consumables required to keep the station’s electronic systems functioning.
Mr Skripochka and his US colleague Jessica Meir will have spent 205 days in space on this mission if they leave as planned on April 17. Drew Morgan, another US astronaut currently at the ISS, will have spent 272 days at the station. The crew enjoy full communications with earth and internet access – for when they are not working on essential maintenance to the station and its systems – and so are almost certainly aware of the pandemic.
One question remains: how to deal with the returning astronauts when they touch down, according to the planned re-entry, in the Kazakh desert. The Central Asian country has locked down its main cities and banned the arrival of foreigners.
“In Kazakhstan, as in Russia, all arrivals from abroad have to be sent into a 14-day quarantine,” Sergei Savin, chief epidemiologist at Roscosmos’ astronaut training centre, told local media last week. “Most likely, this requirement will also apply to Oleg Skripochka after his return from the ISS. The entire traditional programme for post-flight rehabilitation is currently in question.”