NASA's Mark Vande Hei returns to Earth after record mission
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and two cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that touched down in Kazakhstan on Wednesday morning.
Why it matters: The landing, which concludes Vande Hei's NASA record-breaking 355 consecutive days in space, comes as the U.S. and Russia's relationship in space has become significantly damaged over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
- The space relationship was already frayed before the invasion from Moscow's test of an anti-satellite missile in November, debris from which threatened the ISS' crew and could go on to damage other satellites, according to NASA.
- The U.S. and Russia have collaborated in a civilian capacity in space for decades, primarily through the ISS — which can't function properly without both countries participating.
What they're saying: Vande Hei, who surpassed former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s 340-day record on March 15, said in a video before the landing he was "looking forward to being outside, no matter what kind of weather" and that his time in space changed the way he saw Earth.
- "Having been up here, looking down at the Earth from outside the atmosphere, to me, that atmosphere right now looks so thin," Vande Hei said.
- "Back on Earth, it seems much clearer to me that when you're standing outside looking up at the stars, you're really in space. The only thing separating you from the vacuum of space is that precious thin layer of atmosphere that we call home."
Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record for the longest consecutive time spent in space with 437.7 days.
- Dubrov, who landed with Vande Hei on Wednesday, also completed 355 consecutive days in space.
- Vande Hei has now spent a total of 523 days in space, placing him third on the most cumulative days living and working in space for an American astronaut.
The big picture: In the weeks before the landing, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, repeatedly threatened to stop cooperating with the ISS in protest of sanctions on Moscow over its invasion.
- As part of his threats, Rogozin said Russia could either shut down or detach the primary engines that keep ISS in orbit and would not intervene if the spacecraft risked falling back to Earth in an uncontrolled deorbit.
- Roscosmos, apparently in jest, also posted edited videos on social media weeks before the landing showing the cosmonauts leaving Vande Hei behind with other ISS crew members and detaching the Russian portion of the station altogether, sending the spacecraft into freefall back to Earth.
- NASA administrator Bill Nelson and other officials have said that Russia remains committed to the ISS despite Rogozin's comments.
What's next: Russia sent three cosmonauts to the ISS earlier this month, and it has at least two more planned launches to the station this year, one of which will be crewed.
- SpaceX is set to launch two crewed missions to the ISS next month.
- One, scheduled to launch no earlier than April 6, is on behalf of Axiom Space, a Houston-based developer of what may be the world's first commercial space station.
- The other is on behalf of NASA and is set to launch no earlier than April 19.