A record-breaking American astronaut returns to Earth on a Russian rocket.
A NASA astronaut took a Russian trip back to Earth today after a record 355 days aboard the International Space Station.
Mark Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan along with two Russian cosmonauts: Pyotr Dubrov, who also spent last year in space, and Anton Shkaplerov.
After the conflict in Ukraine, there were threats from the Russian space agency that Vande Hei would be left behind.
The wind pushed the capsule to one side after landing, and the trio emerged into the afternoon sun one by one.
Vande Hei, the last to leave, smiled and waved as he was led to a reclining chair on the open steppes of Kazakhstan.
Despite growing tensions between the US and Russia over Putin’s war with Ukraine, Vande Hei’s return followed normal procedures.
A small team of doctors and other NASA personnel were present for the landing and planned to immediately return to Houston with the 55-year-old astronaut.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the issue with his two Russian crewmates. Despite taking us “fantastically … I’m not sure we really want to go there,” he said.
It was the first test of gravity for Vande Hei and Dubrov since the Soyuz launch on April 9 last year.
Shkaplerov joined them at the orbiting lab in October, escorting a Russian film crew for a brief stay. To accommodate that visit, Vande Hei and Dubrov doubled the length of their stay.
Before departing the space station, Shkaplerov embraced his fellow astronauts as “my space brothers and my space sister.”
‘People have problems on Earth. In orbit… we are a crew,” Shkaplerov said in a live NASA television broadcast on Tuesday. The space station is a symbol of ‘friendship and cooperation and… the future of space exploration’.
However, war tensions have spread to other areas of space with the suspension of launches of European satellites by Russian rockets and the Europe-Russia rover to Mars was stuck on Earth for another two years.
Vande Hei surpassed NASA’s previous record for the longest individual spaceflight by 15 days. Dubrov went on to break into Russia’s top five, well short of the 437-day, 17-hour marathon run by a cosmonaut doctor aboard the Mir space station from the 1990s that remains the world record.
“Broken records mean we’re making progress,” said NASA’s former space endurance champion, retired astronaut Scott Kelly. whose 340-day mission ended in 2016.
Like Kelly, Vande Hei underwent medical tests during his long stay to further NASA’s mission to return astronauts to the Moon and Mars. He said daily meditation helped him get through the mission twice as long as his first station four years earlier.
“I’ve had a 24/7 indoor job for almost a year, so I look forward to being outside no matter the weather,” Vande Hei said in a recent NASA video series.