ONE many people overlooked the 92-year-old man who watched the Wednesday, October 5, launch of the last crew to the International Space Station (ISS). He was there among the dignitaries and, to tell the truth, it was easy to miss him. His name is Tom Stafford, and he’s nothing like his Gemini and Apollo days, when he flew into space four times—once in command of 1969’s Apollo 10, during which he piloted his lunar module inside. 14,325 meters (47,000 ft) of the lunar surface, in a final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing that would come two months later.
But he is equally known for a mission he flew six years later, in July 1975, as one of two commanders of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project—the first joint two-spacecraft mission between the US and the former USSR at the time, the warring nations were at critical points on Earth, but they wanted to show the world that in space, at least, it was possible for sworn enemies to be close friends. And it’s the same message Stafford’s presence was intended to convey this week.
Things have turned sour again between Washington and Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the sanctions regime the US and other Western nations have put in place in response. US-Russian cooperation on the ISS initially appeared to be spared the growing hostility, but in July Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, threatened that his country would abandon the ISS cooperation in response to the sanctions. the split was set to occur sometime after 2024. The high ground of space, it seemed, had become just another arena for the lowly business of politics.
But things have brightened since then. In July, Rogozin was replaced as head of Roscosmos by Yuri Borisov, and once the new boss took over, Russia backed off its threat to abandon the ISS, saying only that it has plans to build its own station — which it may not to be completed by the end of the decade — and only when it does will break up the space station partnership.
More immediately, Roscosmos and NASA also agreed to a new seat-swapping agreement, under which a NASA astronaut would fly on each Soyuz spacecraft bound for the ISS, and a Russian cosmonaut, in turn, would fly on each spacecraft SpaceX Crew Dragon. Just two weeks ago, astronaut Frank Rubio lifted off in a Soyuz bound for the ISS, and on Crew Dragon for Wednesday’s launch was rookie cosmonaut Anna Kikina, only the fifth Russian woman in space.
Stafford, who was invited to the launch this week as a living symbol of US-Russian space cooperation, did not speak to the press after the launch. But Sergei Krikalev, the head of Roscosmos’ human spaceflight program, did. And he clearly had the veteran astronaut’s achievements in mind.
“We’re just continuing what we started many years ago in 1975, when the Apollo-Soyuz crew was working together,” he said at a press conference after the launch. This continuation extends to at least 2024, with more seat swaps firmly planned and others likely to follow.
Joint missions have more than symbolic value. Flying Americans and Russians together ensures that there is always at least one crew member on the station from each country, which is essential to the station’s operations, as NASA astronauts are more familiar with the operation of the American part of the station and cosmonauts of Roscosmos more experienced in handling the Russian units. None of this does away with geopolitics entirely, of course. On the ground, 400 km (250 miles) below the ISS, the war in Ukraine continues to rage. But above, at least, there is lasting peace.
This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can register here.
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