NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth in a Russian space capsule

Record-breaking NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will return to Earth from the International Space Station early March 30. back in a Russian Soyuz rocket along with two Russian cosmonauts. His planned return trip to the planet has been a constant source of contention in recent weeks as tensions between the United States and Russia have risen dramatically following its invasion of Ukraine.

Vande Hei has been on the ISS since April 2021, when he launched from Kazakhstan on another Soyuz rocket. He was originally scheduled to stay on board for just six months, the standard length of stay for most astronauts on the ISS. But in September NASA announced that Vande Hei’s stay has been extended to better accommodate a few tourists and a Russian film crew that Russia sent to the ISS late last year. Thanks to the extension, Vande Hei will hold the record for the longest uninterrupted stay in space by an American: 355 days.

It had always been planned that Vande Hei would return to Earth in a Russian Soyuz, although he will be returning in a different capsule than the one in which he took off. But after Russia began invading Ukraine in February, some were quick to wonder what that would mean for Vande Hei’s journey. At the beginning of the invasion NASA assured the public that the space agency and Russia’s state space company, Roscosmos, continued to work together to maintain the normal operations of the space station. And NASA found that Vande Hei came home in a Soyuz as planned.

However, things changed on March 5 when RIA Novosti, a Russian state news program, shared a video on Telegram showing footage of Vande Hei on the ISS, as well as Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, the two Russian cosmonauts he was with is contained shall return to earth. The video was edited to appear as if the cosmonauts were leaving Vande Hei in space. The video then showed the entire Russian portion of the space station separating from the rest of the ISS.

RIA Novosti described the video as a joke, but some media outlets took the claims seriously and interpreted the footage as Russia’s threat to trap Vande Hei in space. It didn’t help that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, also shared the video on his Telegram channel. Rogozin made countless wild threats on the Russian-US space partnership since the beginning of the invasion and at one point hinted that the ISS could crash on Earth if Russia pulls out of the program.

After Good morning America and FoxNews speculated that Vande Hei will be left behind on the ISS, Russia officially denies the speculation. “The US astronaut, who is scheduled to return to Earth soon, will do so as scheduled on March 30 aboard the Russian space capsule,” according to a report by TASS, another Russian state-run news organization.

NASA also reiterated in a March 14 press conference that operations would continue as normal. “The reality is that Mark Vande Hei is coming home with Anton on March 30th [Shkaplerov] and Pyotr [Dubrov]. Period,” said Joel Montalbano, the ISS program manager at NASA, during the conference when asked about the alleged threat posed by the video. “There really isn’t much to add. We have confirmation from our Russian colleagues.” Montalbano also stressed that NASA and Roscosmos need each other to continue operating the space station and that there are no immediate plans to end this partnership. “We don’t see any impact of what’s going on around us. … We are aware of what is going on, but we can do our work to continue operations,” he said.

Vande Hei and Shkaplerov hug after the change of command ceremony
Image: NASA

Vande Hei and his two cosmonaut crewmates will bid farewell to the remaining astronauts on the ISS at approximately 12:00 p.m. ET before boarding the Soyuz and closing the capsule’s hatch. The Soyuz will then detach from the space station at approximately 3:21 p.m. ET and slowly move away from the ISS. The capsule will eventually perform a burn of its engines to de-orbit itself and make its way to land under parachutes in Kazakhstan at approximately 7:28 p.m. ET. Once on the ground, Vande Hei will return to Houston, Texas, on a NASA Gulfstream jet — the same procedure as for all previous astronauts returning from the ISS in the Soyuz. NASA plans to broadcast every major milestone live starting tonight at 11:30 p.m. ET.

Despite ongoing concerns about how geopolitical relations could spill over into space, the crew of the ISS showed their unity ahead of Soyuz’s planned return. On Tuesday, the crew led a change of command ceremony, with former commander Shkaplerov handing over the symbolic key to the space station to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn before the return of the Soyuz. During the ceremony, Shkaplerov hinted at the fighting on Earth. “I [am] I’m proud to be the captain of this excellent team,” he said. “People have problems on earth. In orbit… we are one crew.” NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth in a Russian space capsule

Fry Electronics Team

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