NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returns to Earth in Russian space capsule

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Update March 30, 8AM ET: The Soyuz featuring Mark Vande Hei, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov successfully landed in Kazakhstan at 7:28AM ET. Although winds in the area caused the Soyuz to tip over on its side after landing, all three crew members were safely removed from the vehicle. After traveling by helicopter to Karaganda, Vande Hei will board a NASA jet to take him back to Houston, Texas.

Original story: Record-breaking NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returns to Earth from the International Space Station early March 30, returning in a Russian Soyuz rocket along with two Russian cosmonauts. His planned trip back to the planet has been an ongoing source of contention in recent weeks as tensions between the United States and Russia have eased dramatically following Ukraine’s invasion of Ukraine.

Vande Hei has been on the ISS since April 2021, when he launched from Kazakhstan on another Soyuz rocket. Originally, he was only supposed to stay on board for six months, the standard length of stay for most astronauts aboard the ISS. But in Sept. NASA has announced that Vande Hei’s stay has been extended to better accommodate a few visiting tourists and a Russian film crew that Russia sent to the ISS late last year. Thanks to the extension, Vande Hei holds the record for the longest continuous stay in space by an American: 355 days.

The plan has always been that Vande Hei would return in a Russian Soyuz

Vande Hei has always been intended to return to Earth in a Russian Soyuz, although he will return in a different capsule than the one in which he was launched. But after Russia began invading Ukraine in February, some were quick to wonder what that would mean for Vande Hei’s journey. Early in the invasion, NASA assured the public that the space agency and Russian state space company Roscosmos continued to work together to maintain normal operation of the space station. And NASA noted that Vande Hei still came home in a Soyuz as planned.

However, things took a turn for the worse on March 5 when RIA Novosti, a Russian state news program, shared a video on Telegram featuring footage of Vande Hei on the ISS, as well as Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, the two Russian cosmonauts with whom he works. believed to return to Earth. The video has been edited in such a way that it looks like the cosmonauts would leave Vande Hei in space. The video then showed the entire Russian portion of the space station detaching from the rest of the ISS.

RIA Novosti described the video as a joke, but some media took the images seriously and interpreted the images as Russia threatening Vande Hei stranded in space. It did not help that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, also shared the video on his Telegram channel. Rogozin has made a number of wild threats about the Russian-American space partnership since the invasion began, insinuating at one point that the ISS could crash on Earth if Russia withdraws from the program.

After Good Morning America and Fox News speculated about leaving Vande Hei on the ISS, Russia officially denied the speculation. “The American astronaut who will soon return to Earth will do so as planned on March 30 aboard the Russian space capsule vehicle,” a report wrote in TASS, another Russian state news organization.

“We are aware of what is going on, but we can do our job to continue operations.”

NASA also reiterated that operations would continue normally at a press conference on March 14. “The reality is that Mark Vande Hei will come home on March 30th with Anton [Shkaplerov] and Pyotr [Dubrov]† Full stop,” Joel Montalbano, the ISS program manager at NASA, said at the conference when asked about the alleged threat posed by the video. “There’s really not much to add to that. We have confirmation from our Russian colleagues.” Montalbano also stressed that NASA and Roscosmos need each other to continue operating the space station, and that there were no immediate plans to end that partnership. “We don’t see any impact of what’s happening around us. … We are aware of what is going on, but we can do our job to continue our activities,” he said.

Vande Hei and Shkaplerov share a hug after the change of command ceremony Image: NASA

Vande Hei and his two cosmonaut crewmembers will bid farewell to the rest of the astronauts on the ISS around noon ET before entering the Soyuz and closing the capsule’s hatch. The Soyuz will then undock from the space station at 3:21 a.m. ET and slowly move away from the ISS. The capsule will eventually perform a combustion of its thrusters to take itself out of orbit and set itself on course to land under parachutes in Kazakhstan around 7:28 a.m. ET. Once on the ground, Vande Hei will return to Houston, Texas, on a NASA Gulfstream jet — the same procedure for all previous astronauts returning from the ISS in the Soyuz. NASA plans to report live on every major milestone tonight at 11:30 PM ET.

Despite ongoing concerns about how geopolitical relations may filter into space, the ISS crew showed their unit ahead of the Soyuz’s scheduled return. On Tuesday, the crew conducted a switch-of-command ceremony, with former Commander Shkaplerov handing over the space station’s symbolic key to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn ahead of Soyuz’s return. During the ceremony, Shkaplerov alluded to the battle taking place on Earth. “L [am] proud to be the commander of this outstanding crew,” he said. “People have problems on Earth. In orbit… we’re one crew.’

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