Washington — While the United States and Russia traded sanctions this week in a burgeoning crisis over Crimea, astronauts from both nations rose above the discord in their sanctuary hundreds of miles from Earth.
Experts say mounting political and economic tensions between the old Cold War foes are unlikely to upset cooperation in space at the moment -- something which would be damaging to both sides.
Not that talking politics is taboo aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where Americans and Russians share close quarters, orbiting at an altitude of 248 miles (400 kilometers) over the Earth.
"We could talk about anything. We'd talk about politics," said retired US astronaut Leroy Chiao, who commanded the ISS for six months in 2004 and 2005.
"With something like this going on, I am sure the crew is talking about it, you know, in a friendly way."
American astronaut Mike Hopkins, upon returning from the ISS earlier this month after a half-year stay, said he considered his Russian counterparts "close friends" and described cooperation as "very strong."
Beyond the personal bonds forged in space, experts say the two lead nations in the 15-country collaboration have to get along because of the way the $100 billion space station was designed.
- 'Like divorced couple' -
The Russian and US sections at the ISS have their own toilets and they have separate air-conditioning systems.
But many complex operations at the football-field-sized orbiting outpost require Russian and US cooperation, both in space and from control centers on the ground.
NASA mission control in Houston leads the effort, and the United States pays for the bulk of the yearly operating costs.
Howard McCurdy, an expert on space policy at American University, said it was not all marital bliss at the ISS.
"It is like a divorced couple trying to live in the same house," he said.
"You can do it, it is just not very easy. They both own the house. They both operate the house."
The United States needs Russia to transport astronauts to the space station, and currently pays an average of $70.7 million per seat, according to a NASA spokesman.
The retirement of the US space shuttle program in 2011 left Americans without a vehicle for ferrying crew to low-Earth orbit, and a commercial replacement is not expected to be up and running before 2017.