On Friday, three cosmonauts arrived at the International Space Station, having launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and harsh Western sanctions, the International Space Station partnership has remained intact so far. Operations between Roscosmos and NASA were smooth on Friday.
There was a surprise, however, as cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov floated onto the space station and greeted their Russian, US, and European colleagues already on board. The new arrivals were wearing yellow flight suits with blue highlights, a uniform that bore a strong resemblance to the flag of Ukraine.
The attire raised a lot of eyebrows, and it was not immediately clear why the cosmonauts wore the uncharacteristically yellow flight suits. Subsequently, there were news stories and opinions expressed on social media that the cosmonauts had worn the suits in protest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While this seems possible, it is improbable. There are two main reasons why. First of all, the flight suits for these missions are packed literally months in advance of a launch, so they would have had to have been made in 2021, long before an invasion seemed imminent. Secondly, many—if not most—cosmonauts appear to support the invasion of Ukraine.
Here are three possible explanations for the flight suits:
- It’s a coincidence: The official explanation from the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, is that “sometimes yellow is just yellow.” Roscosmos noted that the three cosmonauts had all attended Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which has school colors similar to the flight suits. This is the simplest explanation and therefore the most likely. Working against this theory is that the color of the flight suits is much closer to the yellow and blue of the Ukraine flag than the technical school.
- It really was a protest: If the cosmonauts were truly trying to send a signal to the Russian people, wearing the colors of Ukraine would be a powerful way to show solidarity. During the post-docking news conference with Russian media, Oleg Artemyev was asked about the color of the suits. In response, he joked about surplus yellow fabric. He did not mention the Bauman connection. However, orchestrating the recent fabrication of these flight suits, and getting them surreptitiously packed on board Soyuz during a late-load process, would have required a lot of traceable activity in Baikonur.
- Failed propaganda: Finally, there is a darker theory. It’s possible that the yellow flight suits were a failed propaganda effort by the Russian government. As a Twitter user noted Friday, the launch date for this Soyuz mission was March 18, the day when Russia “celebrates” its annexation of the Crimean peninsula. It seems possible that a ceremony had been planned to celebrate the Russian “de-Nazification” of Ukraine or some other nonsense, but due to the failure of the Russian military to quickly install a puppet government, this “celebration” could not take place on March 18.
We may never get a full and honest answer, but the incident does raise a bigger question. How do the cosmonauts in the Russian space program feel about the invasion of Ukraine? Do they even see it as an invasion?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but we can make some educated guesses. First of all, many Russian cosmonauts come from a military background, so it’s likely that they would be sympathetic to military actions. There is also a tradition of former cosmonauts leaving spaceflight and going into the Russian legislative assembly, the Duma. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Valentina Tereshkova, the much-heralded first woman in space, who has become one of Vladimir Putin’s strongest backers in the Duma.
There is also anecdotal evidence to back the idea of cosmonauts supporting the war. Many former NASA astronauts who flew on the station have remained in contact with their Russian colleagues. “Everyone that I know or have heard of supports the war,” one former NASA astronaut told Ars. “It’s awful.”
But not all cosmonauts support the war. While it would be very difficult for an active flier to speak out about the war, former cosmonaut Gennady Padalka made some interesting comments in the Novaya Gazeta publication last week. Padalka is not just any cosmonaut, either, as he holds the record for the most time in space by any person, at a total of 879 days.
In his comments, Padalka noted that as a pilot in the Soviet Air Force, he was taught to be able to “precisely distinguish and tell apart civilian infrastructure from military targets, civilians from Army units, and military actions from war crimes.”
So it seems probable that the opinion of the Russian cosmonaut corps is mixed toward the war, with some in favor and some not. That an active cosmonaut would feel strongly enough to orchestrate a risky flight suit swap appears unlikely. And if Artemyev and his colleagues actually did this brave thing, why would they not say so clearly? Their bosses back in Moscow already would know the truth, and there would be consequences regardless of what was said in orbit.