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Opinion: The weightlessness of peace

Astronauts and cosmonauts returned from space and saluted one another this week, even as the countries that sent them to the International Space Station are in conflict over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

American astronaut Mark Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz spacecraft alongside Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, with a ker-thunk and a cloud of dust on the soil of Kazakhstan. Vande Hei and Dubrov had been aloft for 355 days.

Both NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, say they continue to work amicably together. But there was some consternation when the Roscosmos chief posted a satirical video in which cosmonauts say goodbye to their American crewmate and then detach the Russian module from the ISS to the tune of a Russian farewell song called "Farewell."

A former astronaut I spoke with this week says he believes this was the kind of joke people in a high-stress business make with each other. But as we saw at the Oscars last Sunday, not everyone finds every joke funny. There was relief when the Soyuz smacked the earth and the screen in Russia's Mission Control flashed, "Welcome back, Mark!"

Before he left orbit, cosmonaut Shkaplerov handed over command of the Space Station to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and said, "People have problems on Earth. On orbit, we are one crew. ... You are like my space brothers and space sister."

Marshburn returned the praise. "I can't thank you enough for your dedication to the safety of the station," he said, "the safety of your crew, your humor, your friendship and your dedication to the flight control teams around the world."

The former astronaut with whom I spoke says astronauts and cosmonauts would no more talk politics aboard the International Space Station than they would casually light a match.

They train together, and share risks, stories, and, of course, that otherworldly view they have of our world: fragile, blue and borderless.

Alexei Leonov, one of the first cosmonauts and the first person to walk in space, in 1965, beheld the planet we share and wrote: "The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic."

Our governments are at odds over the invasion of Ukraine, as Russian forces aim shells at civilians and shatter whole towns. But this week, we could be reminded how good people from all corners of the world can still work together to achieve something extraordinary.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.