Russian cosmonaut secures U.S. visa after initial denial

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WASHINGTON — A Russian cosmonaut has received a visa to come to the United States for routine space station training after initially having his application rejected, an incident that’s raised questions about how increased tensions over Ukraine might affect space.

Roscosmos officials, including its head, Dmitry Rogozin, complained Jan. 22 that the United States had refused to issue a visa to cosmonaut Nikolai Chub so he could go to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for training on International Space Station systems. Such training is routine for all visitors for to the station.

“We never had the idea of denying a visa to any U.S. astronaut who was on his way to Star City to train for space flight,” Rogozin wrote on social media, referring to the Russian cosmonaut training center outside Moscow. “What the US authorities have done with our cosmonaut’s entry visa is a dangerous precedent for cooperation on the International Space Station.”

In an interview with a Moscow radio station, Rogozin linked the visa issue with growing tensions between Russia and the West as Russia moves military units to near the Ukrainian border. Rogozin said “those cold winds that are now blowing from Washington and Brussels” might now be affecting space relations.

U.S. officials declined to comment on the visa issue. A State Department spokesperson said Jan. 24 that federal law kept visa records confidential, so the department could not discuss a specific case. The spokesperson added there have been “serious staffing constraints” at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow but that it “continues to prioritize visas for official travelers.”

There was no obvious reason why Chub would be denied a visa. Selected as a cosmonaut candidate in 2012 after working in industry, he has yet to fly in space. He is assigned as part of the backup crew for the Soyuz MS-22 mission to the ISS launching in the fall of 2022 and the prime crew for the Soyuz MS-23 mission to the station in the spring of 2023.

The visa problem appears to be solved. Roscosmos announced Jan. 26 that the U.S. granted Chub a visa for training at the Johnson Space Center but did not mention the earlier denial of the visa. “We have visas, no problems,” Rogozin wrote. “We continue to work with NASA.”

It’s unclear if there will continue to be no problems if Russia invades Ukraine, as many American and European officials, including President Joe Biden, expect in the coming weeks. ISS operations were largely unaffected by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 despite threats by Rogozin, then the deputy prime minister, to cut off NASA’s access to Soyuz spacecraft that were the only means then to transport crews to and from the station.

At a Jan. 18 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Robyn Gatens, ISS director at NASA headquarters, said the U.S. and Russian governments were making progress on an agreement to exchange seats between Soyuz and commercial crew missions. That agreement was currently being reviewed by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We are in the meantime working towards this crew swap agreement this coming fall,” she said. That would allow Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina to go on the Crew-5 Crew Dragon mission in the fall and a NASA astronaut, likely to be Frank Rubio, on Soyuz MS-22.

“The United States values the important bilateral cooperation on the International Space Station,” the State Department said Jan. 24 when contacted about the visa issue.