In their last days on Earth before launching to the International Space Station, astronauts sees the same thing: two rows of trees that punctuate the otherwise austere landscape outside the space launch facility in Baikonur, Russia.
The trees that outline the T-shaped path are mismatched in size, but that’s for a reason. Each one was planted by an astronaut just before he or she launched to space, a tradition that Yuri Gagarin started 50 years ago when he planted the first tree just before he became the first human in space. His tree is the largest.
A fresh three-member crew — Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European astronaut Alexander Gerst — will launch to the ISS on Wednesday. All three astronauts planted their trees last week.
“There’s a whole wealth of Russian traditions,” NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who planted a tree before his mission in 2012, told Mashable. “Some are funny, some are beautiful.”
Many Russian traditions are based on the success of what a cosmonaut did before. “In a lot of ways, it’s about honoring the person who came before you,” Marshburn said.
The simple ceremony always takes place shortly before launch, no matter the environment. Be it a harsh Russian winter or an even colder political standoff, the tree will be planted.
But given the current political climate between the U.S. and Russia, these trees have a deeper meaning within the space community, which, until very recently, has been able to operate above bureaucratic squabble.
As the U.S. continues to unleash sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, both nations have put targets on the backs of each other’s space programs.
In April, NASA sent a memo to employees stating that it was cutting all ties with Russia, except for when it comes to the space station — as the U.S. depends on Russia to launch its astronauts to the ISS.
At the same time, NASA made a grandiose public statement that it would return spaceflight to the U.S. by 2017, completely nixing the need for Russian involvement at all.
“We’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017,” NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told Mashable in April. “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.”
Although NASA, at the time, said politics wouldn’t make it to the space station, Russia unveiled a different plan just weeks later. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters on May 13 that Moscow would deny U.S. requests to use the ISS after 2020. He also said he would prevent the U.S. from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.
Astronauts, however, have subtly voiced their continued commitment to teamwork — a seemingly passive protest to the two countries’ efforts to drag the ISS into their battle.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who planted his own tree alongside Marshburn, is among the most vocal. In an April interview with RT, the ISS commander condemned weaponizing space.
And just hours after the news broke that Russia wanted to ban the U.S. from the ISS — coincidentally, that was on the same day a crew of both American and Russian astronauts was returning to Earth — Hadfield tweeted this:
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 13, 2014
And just on day after the U.S. issued its first round of sanctions against Russia, NASA released the photo below before a scheduled launch, showing the two flags together.
“Living in space really does break down barriers,” Marshburn said. “It is a family up there. We have to survive.”
Even NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in March — around the time Russia invaded Crimea — that the space station has been the cornerstone of peaceful relations.
During a press conference, Bolden, who commanded the first U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994, told the story of flying with Russian cosmonauts only a few years after the Cold War. The men talked of their families and of their aspirations for the world over dinner.
“I found that our relationship with the Russians in the space program has been the same ever since,” Bolden said. “We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies.”
For his part, Marshburn, who is currently training in Houston for a future ISS mission, said he will continue to work as though the next trip will be with Russia. He’ll still study Russian, and he’ll work with Russian cosmonaut colleagues on site.
“We are well padded from the political goings on,” said Marshburn. “So, I just don’t think about it because who knows where it’s going to go.”
And as long as NASA astronauts climb into a Russian spacecraft, they’ll continue to add their tree to the growing grove around the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well.
— Reid Wiseman (@astro_reid) May 21, 2014