Record holder NASA astronaut will return to Earth with Russia's Soyuz rocket

There are no problems in orbit.
Ameya Paleja
Vande Hei during his interactions at the ISSISS Research/ Twitter

Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut with a highly enviable record of having spent 355 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to set to return today on a Russian space capsule, NASA confirmed in a post

It is well known that operations on the ISS are conducted collaboratively with the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) and NASA. While this arrangement has remained in force for decades, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has seen the relationship between the countries strained. In veiled threats, the Director-General of the Roscosmos had warned that sanctions on Russia could impact operations on the ISS.

With the two major collaborators of the space station at daggers drawn, the return of a NASA astronaut seemed to be in peril. 

The longest stay at the ISS

Vande Hei had reached the space station in April 2021, on a Soyuz rocket when the tempers weren't flared between the two nations. Like other astronauts, Vande Hei was scheduled to stay at the ISS for a period of six months but his stay was extended by NASA to accommodate visitors and a Russian filming crew at the space station, late last year, The Verge reported. Vande Hei ended up being at the ISS for 355 days, a world record. 

Vande Hei was scheduled to return with two Russian cosmonauts on a Soyuz spacecraft, albeit a different one than the one that took him to the ISS. However, since the Ukraine conflict broke out, uncertainty prevailed over this return. Adding to the tension was a video clip that was shared on social media that showed Russian cosmonauts leaving the American astronaut behind. 

The trip back home

It was only on the 14th of March that it was confirmed that Vande Hei would indeed be returning on the Soyuz spacecraft with the two Russian cosmonauts, as originally planned on the 30th of March, i.e. today. 

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At the turn of midnight ET, the astronaut will leave the ISS along with his Russian counterparts, enter the Soyuz spacecraft and close the hatch. Around 3:20 AM ET, the spacecraft will separate from the ISS and after reaching a safe distance from the space station, fire its thrusters to push itself out of orbit and towards the earth. 

After a four-hour flight, slowed down by parachutes, the spacecraft will land in Kazakhstan at around 7:30 AM ET. As with all NASA astronauts who return on the Soyuz spacecraft, Vande Hei will return to the U.S. on a NASA Gulfstream jet.  

The collaboration during this return shows that countries may be fighting on Earth but up in space, we are still one. 

Update (10:41 am ET): Soyuz has landed

The Soyuz spacecraft has now successfully landed, NASA has confirmed in a tweet. 

Even as the Director-General of Roscosmos has been fiery, it is good to see that the landing went uneventful and the agency remains professional. 

Vande Hei's long stay at the ISS has finally come to an end.