NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei safely returned to Earth in a Russian spacecraft on Wednesday after spending 355 days on the International Space Station, a stint that set a new record for the longest single spaceflight by an American.
This achievement, and the safe arrival of Vande Hei and his Russian crewmates Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, occurred amid rising tensions between Russia and Western nations over the invasion of Ukraine. There was even debate about whether Russia might simply leave Vande Hei in space after the country’s space agency released a provocative and trollish video.
Earlier this month, Roscosmos shared the bizarre video on Telegram, which was edited to show Shkaplerov and Dubrov leaving the ISS without Vande Hei, stranding the American in space.
The video was promoted by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, which described it as a joke. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos known for his prolific shitposting, also shared the video, prompting widespread backlash. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who previously held the record for longest spaceflight by an American, called the video “an unthinkable violation of the trust built between our two countries in space over decades” in the Washington Post.
The clip, among other troll posts over the past month, sparked a heated Twitter feud between Kelly, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, and Rogozin. In response to Rogozin’s various threats to maroon Vande Hei, abandon Russia’s role on the ISS, and even crash the ISS into the United States, Kelly and Reisman hurled insults at the Roscosmos head, who ultimately blocked them.
Despite all this outer space trolling, Roscosmos assured its international partners that Vande Hei would be included on the return trip to Earth onboard Russia’s Soyuz vehicle.
"US astronaut Mark Vande Hei will travel back home in the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft together with Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov on March 30,” the agency said in a recent statement to Russia’s state-owned news service TASS. “Roscosmos has never let anybody doubt its reliability as a partner."
Contrary to that statement, Roscosmos has experienced unprecedented isolation from its international partners since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. OneWeb, a British government-owned satellite internet company that relied on Russia for its trips to space, has chosen to partner with a rival U.S. company, SpaceX, for its launches. The move came after Roscosmos refused to proceed with scheduled launches of OneWeb satellites unless the United Kingdom sold its multi-million dollar stake in the company and assured Russia that the satellites would not support military operations. Both demands were rejected by the U.K., leading to OneWeb’s new arrangement with SpaceX.
ExoMars, a Russian-European mission to Mars that was due to launch this year, has also been suspended as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Multiple German-Russian space research projects have been halted, including a next-generation X-ray instrument called eROSITA that was launched in 2019. Russia has also stopped supplying the United States with its RD-180 rocket engine, which is not expected to have a major effect on American space operations.
In addition to these consequential ruptures between Russia and its space partners, there is even some speculation that the nation’s own cosmonauts disapprove of the invasion of Ukraine. Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov arrived at the ISS two weeks ago decked out in yellow and blue, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, stoking rumors of the crew’s defiance of its nation’s war. However, the cosmonauts have not confirmed that they intended to send a message with their uniforms.
"It became our turn to pick a color,” Artemyev said, according to the Associated Press. “But in fact, we had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it. So that's why we had to wear yellow.”
Despite these frayed relationships, Russian mission control greeted Vande Hei with a friendly message—“Welcome back, Mark!”—in Russian and English once the Soyuz crew parachuted to Kazakhstan at 7:28 Eastern Time on Wednesday. Vande Hei will return home to Houston, Texas, in the coming days.
"Mark's mission is not only record-breaking, but also paving the way for future human explorers on the Moon, Mars, and beyond," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. "Our astronauts make incredible sacrifices in the name of science, exploration, and cutting-edge technology development, not least among them time away from loved ones. NASA and the nation are proud to welcome Mark home and grateful for his incredible contributions throughout his year-long stay on the International Space Station."