US Astronaut to Ride Russian Spacecraft Back to Earth
United States astronaut Mark Vande Hei has made it through nearly a year in space. Now, he faces an unusual situation: At the end of the month, he is going to ride a Russian spacecraft back to Earth as tensions deepen between the countries.
Vande Hei — who recently broke the U.S. single spaceflight record of 340 days — is due to leave the International Space Station (ISS) with two Russians in a Soyuz capsule. They will land in Kazakhstan on March 30.
The astronaut will have spent 355 days in space by then, setting a new U.S. record. The world record of 438 continuous days in space belongs to Russia.
NASA insists Vande Hei’s return plans at the end of the month remain unchanged, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in canceled launches, broken contracts and a war of words with the Russian Space Agency’s leader, Dmitry Rogozin.
Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is among those arguing with Rogozin, a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin. Angered by what is going on in Ukraine, Kelly has returned his Russian medal for space exploration to the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Despite the conflict on Earth, Kelly believes the two sides “can hold it together” up in space.
He told the Associated Press, “We need an example set that two countries that historically have not been on the most friendly of terms, can still work somewhere peacefully. And that somewhere is the International Space Station. That’s why we need to fight to keep it.”
NASA wants to keep the space station running until 2030, as do the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, while the Russians have not committed beyond the original end date of 2024.
The U.S. and Russia are the main operators of the ISS, which has been permanently occupied for 21 years. Until SpaceX started launching astronauts in 2020, Americans regularly got rides on Russian Soyuz capsules for tens of millions of dollars per seat.
The U.S. and Russian space agencies are still working on a long-term plan in which a Russian would launch on a SpaceX capsule beginning this fall and an American would fly up on the Soyuz. That would permit a U.S. and Russian station presence at all times.
Vande Hei, 55, a retired Army colonel, moved into the space station last April, launching on a Soyuz from Kazakhstan with Pyotr Dubrov and another Russian. He and Dubrov stayed twice as long as usual to help with a Russian film crew that visited in October.
As the situation 420 kilometers below became worse last month, Vande Hei said he was avoiding discussions about Ukraine with Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov, their Russian commander. Three more Russians will launch from Kazakhstan on Friday to replace them.
“We haven’t talked about that too much. I’m not sure we really want to go there,” Vande Hei told a TV reporter in mid-February.
Space station operations continue as always — in orbit and on Earth, according to NASA.
“It would be a sad day for international operations if we can’t continue to peacefully operate in space,” said NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders, who noted it would be “very difficult” to do space research alone.