Russia has confirmed it will not leave an American astronaut stranded on the International Space Station.
Rumors that Russia might abandon astronauts on the space station started when Russian state media posted a trollish video on Telegram, made by Roscosmos according to NASA Watch, depicting the Russians abandoning the ISS and leaving it to de-orbit because Russia controls critical propulsion systems. As part of that video, the Russian astronauts can be seen saying goodbye to American astronaut Mark Vande Hei and leaving him behind. Vande Hei has spent more than 300 days in space, an ongoing world record.
The threat to de-orbit the space station was widely seen as a toothless provocation on the part of Russia, although it hinted at future non-cooperation. The video was captioned: “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.”
Regardless, with a scheduled return trip for Vande Hei coming up, people began to worry, with Fox News taking it furthest and claiming in a weekend segment that the Russians had said, “With everything going on, just leave him up there.”
Russia’s now saying it would never do such a thing.
"American astronaut Mark Vande Hei will return to Earth on March 30 aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, together with Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov. Roskosmos has never given reason to doubt its reliability as a partner," Russian state media reported, referencing the Fox segment.
Before the Fox segment even ran, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin—who is known for his bombastic threats, including to crash the ISS—said on Telegram that Russia would not leave Vande Hei on the ISS and that such reports were “hysterical,” Space.com reported.
The relationship between Roscosmos and the international space community has always been a little rocky: In 2014, Rogozin, angry about sanctions imposed on his personal accounts in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, threatened to pull Soyuz support from the ISS and told NASA it could use a big trampoline to get up there. In 2021, Rogozin threatened to withdraw Russia from the space station if the U.S. didn’t lift sanctions on the country and himself (and then denied ever saying that) and later that year, NASA claimed that a Russian anti-satellite test endangered the ISS.
In the first few days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, as sanctions against the country tightened—including ones targeting its space industry—Rogozin tweeted vague threats about being able to crash the ISS into neighboring countries. “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit that falls into the United States or Europe?” he wrote. “There is also the option of dropping the 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?” Russia has also halted sales of rocket engines to the U.S., with Rogozin saying, “Let them fly on something else—their broomsticks—I don't know what."
Since then, American astronauts, Rogozin, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have taken turns big-timing each other on Twitter.
“Without those flags and the foreign exchange they bring in, your space program won't be worth a damn,” astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted after Russia removed American and Japanese flags from their rockets. “Maybe you can find a job at McDonald's if McDonald's still exists in Russia.” (McDonalds has since closed all of its locations in Russia in response to the country’s war on Ukraine.)
"Time to let the American broomstick fly and hear the sounds of freedom," SpaceX’s launch director said during a livestream of the launch of 48 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral on March 9.
Not one to sit out a trolling battle, Musk tweeted on Monday that he “hereby challenged” Russian President Vladimir Putin to “single combat” with the stakes being, “Ukraine.” Rogozin replied with a quote-tweet containing a passage from renowned Russian poet A.C. Pushkin.
Last month, Musk sent Starlink antennas to Ukraine, as the country struggles to keep internet access infrastructure online; experts say satellites like these pose serious safety risks for people using them.
Despite all of this, NASA has remained relatively quiet for a very good reason: Amid all of the bluster, sanctions, and threats, Russian and U.S. cooperation on the ISS has largely continued, with the commitment to bringing Vande Hei home being a prime example. However, that could always change.