A NASA astronaut caught a Russian ride back to Earth on Wednesday (3/30/22) after a U.S. record 355 days at the International Space Station, returning with two cosmonauts to a world torn apart by war.
Mark Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan alongside the Russian Space Agency’s Pyotr Dubrov, who also spent the past year in space, and Anton Shkaplerov. Wind blew the capsule onto its side following touchdown, and the trio emerged into the late afternoon sun one by one.
Vande Hei, the last one out, grinned and waved as he was carried to a reclining chair out in the open Kazakh steppes.
“Beautiful out here,” said Vande Hei, putting on a face mask and ballcap.
Despite escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine, Vande Hei’s return followed customary procedures. A small NASA team of doctors and other staff was on hand for the touchdown and planned to return immediately to Houston with the 55-year-old astronaut.
Even before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the subject with his two Russian crewmates. Despite getting along “fantastically … I’m not sure we really want to go there,” he said.
It was the first taste of gravity for Vande Hei and Dubrov since their Soyuz launch on April 9 last year. Shkaplerov joined them at the orbiting lab in October, escorting a Russian film crew up 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 space sister.”
“People have problem on Earth. On orbit … we are one crew,” Shkaplerov said in a live NASA TV broadcast Tuesday. The space station is a symbol of “friendship and cooperation and … future of exploration of space.”
The war tensions bubbled over in other areas of space with the suspension of European satellite launches on Russian rockets and the Europe-Russia Mars rover stuck on Earth for another two years.
Vande Hei surpassed NASA’s previous record for the longest single spaceflight by 15 days. Dubrov moved into Russia’s top five, well short of the 437-day, 17-hour marathon by a cosmonaut-physician aboard the 1990s Mir space station that remains the world record.
“Broken records mean we’re making progress,” said NASA’s previous space endurance champ, retired astronaut Scott Kelly, whose 340-day mission ended in 2016.