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A US astronaut was potentially exposed to COVID-19 by Russia — which kept quiet, emails show

Official NASA portrait of astronaut Chris Cassidy (NASA Johnson/Flickr)

U.S.-Russian relations have long been strained but an exception to that has always been mutually beneficial joint efforts in space. Or so it seemed.

New internal emails from NASA, shared with McClatchy and the Miami Herald, suggest the space relationship too has been increasingly strained. The reason: The secrecy surrounding the COVID-19 death of a Russian space official whose pre-launch close contact with a U.S. astronaut potentially exposed the American to the virus.

The emails center on the shocking mid-April news that one of the top officials in the Russian program, Evgeniy Mikrin, near the top of the Russian space program, had contracted the coronavirus. He died soon after the launch of a U.S. astronaut on a Russian spacecraft for six months on the International Space Station orbiting Earth.

Photos from the time show Mikrin and other top Russian space officials standing next to astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts shortly before they boarded their spacecraft in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to slingshot skyward.

Mikrin’s COVID-19 diagnosis was news in Russia. And the emails show, unfortunately, that it was news too to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

They show that a science reporter from Great Britain’s Sun newspaper, Harry Pettit, reached out to NASA on April 17 with a link to a story in another British paper, the Guardian, citing unconfirmed rumors that people involved in the space launch were infected with the coronavirus.

“Does Nasa have a comment in regards to this rumour?” Pettit asked of Kathryn Hambleton, a NASA media specialist. Pettit ran a story on the same day, carried in the New York Post, that did not include any comment from NASA.

The agency had no comment for this story despite multiple calls and emails. Private contractors from Boeing who were on the private NASA email chains also did not respond to requests for comment.

The emails show that Hambleton’s boss, Stephanie Schierholz, was concerned enough to fire off an internal notice across NASA’s Russia program asking if anyone else had been contacted or heard the rumor.

“Hi everyone, we heard about this yesterday. I’ve attached what I know from our team on the ground in Moscow. Hope this helps, thanks!” wrote back Andy Parks, a Washington, D.C.-based international program specialist, now eight days after the launch.

Some inside NASA had heard the news, it turned out. But they’d heard unofficially, and only a day earlier via the Russian media.

“Per the media reports this morning … Yevgeny Mikrin got infected with coronavirus and is isolated at home. Mikrin has no clinical symptoms of being sick,” wrote Elena V. Maroko, a Russian translator for NASA, using an alternate English spelling of the Russian’s first name in an April 16 internal email. “Mikrin was tested twice and both tests were COVID-positive, said the source. Currently, he is one of 30 people officially claimed infected inside Roscosmos.”

NASA wasn’t hearing this from counterparts at Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of NASA, whose leader is close with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Instead, the news was filtering out in tiny bits through Russian media. And the concerns were focused on the Russian leaders, not American astronaut Chris Cassidy, who was a week into orbit, floating in his high-tech tin can along with two Russian cosmonauts far above the world.

The NASA email chain was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in May by a user of MuckRock, an online site dedicated to helping ordinary citizens file and track public records requests. MuckRock shared the results recently with McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

Translator Maroko’s original email added that Russian space officials told local media it did not comment on personnel and medical issues. A few hours later she followed up with another, passing along a link to an article from Russia’s Interfax news agency about the first reported case at Star City, the site in Russia where its cosmonauts train.

“Keeping fingers crossed it does not affect anything critical,” she wrote, prompting a response from Patrick Finley, a deputy division director for NASA involved in international matters, that it was “alarming news.”

Mikrin, 64, was a lion in Russia’s space program. He was a member of Russia’s prestigious Academy of Sciences and the chief designer of RSC Energia, which services Roscosmos. Mikrin had flown to the launch site on a three-hour flight with Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, and photos showed Rogozin breaking social distancing guidelines, appearing next to the astronauts without a mask shortly before their April 9 launch.

If Mikrin had infected Rogozin, the coronavirus could have easily passed to the three men who were later cloistered inside the International Space Station.

Shortly before launch, the three described to reporters the rigid COVID protocols they had followed. And these were widely publicized by NASA, too. Steps had been taken to minimize any chance of coming down with the virus while in space, where nothing could be done to help.

But now, a week into the flight, NASA faced that very possibility.

Frustration that Russian counterparts weren’t being forthcoming boiled over. That was apparent in an email sent April 20 by Tricia K. Mack, who heads the human space flight program’s Russia office for NASA.

“We’ve read the news articles, but have not been contacted by any of our Russian colleagues to confirm the story. The news articles say he was on the plane with Rogozin down to Baikonur,” Mack wrote of Mikrin’s positive test results. “We’ve read the news articles but have not been contacted by any of our Russian colleagues to confirm the story.”

There were also unconfirmed rumors that Pavel Vinogradov, another top designer and a former cosmonaut, had also been infected with COVID-19, and Mack was seeking to confirm it.

“Let’s see what we get on Wednesday and then we can formulate a plan whether to follow up with a formal letter,” she wrote.

Mack’s email suggested that behind the scenes the U.S.-Russian space relationship was also a strained one.

“This (program) was something discreet that functioned rather well. This is revealing a side that most of us who look at the broader details wouldn’t have known about,” said Angela Stent, a scholar at Georgetown University and a former State Department and National Intelligence Council expert on U.S.-Russian relations.

Eight days into the mission, Ven Feng, NASA’s deputy program manager of the Commercial Crew Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, also sent around photos. They showed Mikrin and Rogozin posing alongside cosmonauts, and accompanying Cassidy to the rocket launch site.

The email trail picked up again on April 22, when Mack sent around word that they’d heard from Alexey Strelnikov, a Russian Space Station manager, who relayed what he heard from TsENKII, the Russian operational center for space programs.

“I spoke with Strelnikov to follow up on Mikrin testing positive. He said he couldn’t get a hold of Evgeny, but there is a TsENKII document from Space Center Yushnii (Baikonur) that says Mikrin tested positive. Strelnikov didn’t know the date he did or anything about a contact trace, though he did say that people in close contact with Mikrin were tested and mentioned Krikalev,” Mack wrote.

Sergei Krikalev, referenced in Mack’s email, is another RSC Energia leader. He carries a unique historical footnote. Krikalev was on the Soviet space station Mir in 1989 when the Soviet Union broke apart. The monumental events forced him to stay in space 311 days, double his mission, as his homeland collapsed.

No other NASA emails covering the following weeks were made public. The next came on May 7, when a State Department official, whose name was redacted by NASA, sent another Interfax article to NASA officials about Mikrin’s planned burial. It was to be held the following day at Moscow’s Federal Military Memorial Cemetery. There would be a memorial later when the COVID-19 quarantines would be lifted.

Rogozin had actually announced Mikrin’s death two days earlier. Putin sent condolences to the family, citing Mikrin’s “invaluable contribution” to space flight.

On May 8, Russian officials told local media that Mikrin was not infected when he flew with Rogozin to the space launch the prior month and that no one else had tested positive.

Russia isn’t exactly known for transparency, leading some to doubt that statement. How the incident will affect relations going forward is an open question, one that will have an answer on Oct. 14. That’s when U.S. astronaut Kathleen Rubins is scheduled to board a Soyuz spacecraft in Baikonur with two cosmonauts for a trip to the space station.

Publicly, Roscosmos leadership has papered over the April infection threat.

“We managed to do this, and no infection got into orbit, which is very important,” Rogozin told Interfax on July 1, confident there will be no problems later this month.

NASA has depended on the Russians since scrapping the Space Shuttle in July 2011 and preparing for a next phase in space involving greater private-sector participation.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX began sending cargo to the space station in 2012 and this past May successfully launched two American astronauts into space and docked them with the International Space Station. It marked the first manned launch from U.S. facilities since 2011.

That Americans depended on them in space was a source of pride for many Russians. Rogozin reportedly mocked the United States in private for its dependency on Russia’s space program.

“I think the astronauts and cosmonauts have a good workable relationship. There has always been an element of competition,” said Stent, who has followed bilateral relations up close for decades. “The fact that this has happened now, it calls into question how they are treating their own cosmonauts. It’s a serious prestige question.”


© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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