Last week, a flurry of news reports worryingly claimed that Russia was threatening to strand an American astronaut on the International Space Station in direct response to sanctions placed on the country as it continues to invade neighboring Ukraine. But Russian state space corporation Roscosmos is trying to put those fears to rest, saying that it will bring home the astronaut as planned.
Geopolitical tensions won’t keep an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts from returning to Earth together as planned this month.
NASA’s Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov have long been scheduled to come home from the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on March 30. And that remains the plan, despite the strain that Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has placed on Russia’s many space partnerships.
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The NASA astronaut in question is Mark Vande Hei, who has been living on the International Space Station since April 2021. Vande Hei launched to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan, along with two cosmonauts. While living on the ISS, his stay was extended to a full year, and he is slated to return home in another Soyuz capsule on March 30th. When he returns home, he’ll have the record for longest continuous spaceflight by an American astronaut, at around 353 days.
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“I can tell you for sure: Mark is coming home on that Soyuz,” Joel Montalbano, the manager of NASA’s International Space Station program, said during a news conference today (March 14). “We are in communication with our Russian colleagues; there’s no fuzz on that.”
The March 30 event will proceed like other Soyuz returns, Montalbano added. Vande Hei, Dubrov and Shkaplerov will touch down on the steppes of Kazakhstan. About 20 NASA employees will be waiting there to help assess Vande Hei’s physical condition — he has spent nearly a year in microgravity, which can be very hard on the human body — and bring him back to Houston, where NASA’s human spaceflight program is centered.
The invasion has spurred the United States and other nations to impose new economic sanctions on Russia. Russia and its federal space agency, Roscosmos, have decried those sanctions and pulled out of several longstanding partnerships in response.
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Fears that Russia might actually refuse to bring Vande Hei home on the Soyuz started circulating last week. The source of the confusion came from a video shared by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news program, on March 5th that showed footage of Vande Hei on the ISS with his fellow Russian cosmonauts. The clip was cut together in such a way to make it seem like the Russians were going to leave him behind and then detach the Russian portion of the ISS altogether.
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Such moves led to some speculation that the International Space Station program, in which Russia is a key and founding partner, may be in trouble as well. But Montalbano said that the orbiting lab is operating as usual despite the issues on the ground.
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“We’re not seeing any impacts [from] what’s going on around us,” he said. “We’re aware of what’s going on, but we are able to do our job to continue operations.”
He also said that the invasion has not compromised morale or professionalism among the seven astronauts — four Americans, two Russians and one German — currently living on the station.
He also stressed that the International Space Station and its various systems were designed to be highly interdependent, so it wouldn’t be easy to replace the jobs done by a key partner, should one choose to leave.
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The seriousness of this “threat,” however, was always in doubt. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, shared the video to his Telegram channel, along with a message from RIA Novosti that implied it was a joke. “The Roscosmos television studio jokingly demonstrated the possibility of Russia withdrawing from the ISS project — the undocking of the Russian segment of the station, without which the American part of the project cannot exist,” the caption read.
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For example, docked Russian Progress cargo vehicles periodically boost the station’s altitude, to keep it from being pulled down too much by atmospheric drag. A Cygnus freighter, which is built by American aerospace company Northrop Grumman, will soon perform its first reboosting thruster fire. But it will do so in concert with a Progress burn, Montalbano said.
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In the TASS report refuting the claims about Vande Hei, Roscosmos tried to downplay the furor. “Roscosmos has never let anybody doubt its reliability as a partner,” the corporation’s press service said.