By touching down in the landing zone – roughly 400km (250 miles) to the north-east of Russian space launch facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – Vande Hei surpasses Nasa’s previous record for the longest single spaceflight by 15 days.
Early this morning (March 30), Vande Hei landed safely aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule in the grasslands of Kazakhstan together with his Russian colleagues Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov. The trio appeared to have arrived in good health and, after a record-breaking 355 days in space, Vande Hei will finally get to see his wife and family in person again, something he shared his excitement for just before leaving the station.
Mark Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan alongside the Russian Space Agency’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, who also spent the past year in space.
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Russian recovery crews and NASA support personnel quickly converged on the spacecraft to help the crew members out one by one for initial medical checks. All three were carried to nearby recliners where they appeared in good spirits as they began readjusting to the unfamiliar tug of gravity.
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Vande Hei said he had “enthusiasm for the opportunities back on Earth to see my family to be present physically with my wife, where… I haven’t been in her vicinity since January of last year. So that’ll be wonderful,” he said during a video broadcast from the International Space Station yesterday (March 29).
Despite escalating tensions between the US 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.
But the space-farer also admitted that the return to Earth was “bittersweet” as it marked the end of his active astronaut career.
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Even before Russia’s 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.
“I’m sure I’ll have lots of conflicting emotions,” he said before the flight to Earth. “I promised my wife I will not be flying to space again, so that will be bittersweet,” he said, adding that still “I’m very, very grateful to have had this amazing opportunity to come up to the space station here with such wonderful people who I consider friends for the rest of my life; to serve my country and all of humanity.”
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It was the first taste of gravity for Vande Hei and Dubrov since their Soyuz launch on 9 April 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.
Vande Hei shared both his “gratitude” as well as “a little bit of sadness too, because I’ll be shutting the door and I won’t be able to come back. And this is a very, very special place.”
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After the crew’s arrival in Kazakhstan today, they were carried to a medical tent and then flown by helicopter to Karaganda. From there, Vande Hei was set to fly to Houston, Texas, aboard a NASA jet. Once home, he will likely continue to recuperate from his 355 consecutive days in space, the longest single spaceflight ever made by an American astronaut. This beat NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s previous record of 340 days.
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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris shared her congratulations for Vande Hei on the historic, record-breaking feat shortly after his landing, writing online: “Congratulations on your historic journey and 355 days in 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.
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“Fantastic place, occupied by amazing people, working for all of humanity. I’ll forever cherish the memories of serving on the International Space Station. Now, though, I’m thrilled to be back on Mother Earth!” Vande Hei tweeted shortly after his arrival back on his home planet.
The Russian invasion has resulted in canceled launches and broken contracts. Besides threatening to pull out of the space station and drop it on the US, Europe or elsewhere, Rogozin had the flags of other countries covered on a Soyuz rocket awaiting liftoff with internet satellites. The launch was called off after the customer, London-based OneWeb, refused Rogozin’s demand that the satellites not be used for military purposes and the British government halt financial backing.
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Prior to Vande Hei’s arrival back on Earth, there was speculation that, seeing as the U.S. has condemned Russia’s actions to invade Ukraine and ignite a war, Vande Hei might not fly home aboard a Soyuz capsule with cosmonauts. However, today is has been seen that Vande Hei’s planned return, remaining unchanged, has gone forth safely and successfully.
Just one day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dmitry Rogozin, the director-general of Russia’s space agency, accused the US of trying to “destroy” cooperation at the ISS.
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“If you block cooperation with us, then who is going to save the ISS from an uncontrolled descent from orbit and then falling onto the territory of the United States or Europe?” he said.
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Nasa, however, played down the provocative comments. The agency said that it would continue to work with all its international partners – including Russia – and that export sanctions continue to allow it to work with Russia.