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US astronaut to ride Russian spacecraft home during tensions
by Staff Writers
Beijing (SPX) Mar 15, 2022

US astronaut Mark Vande.

US astronaut Mark Vande Hei has made it through nearly a year in space, but faces what could be his trickiest assignment yet: riding a Russian capsule back to Earth in the midst of deepening tensions between the countries.

NASA insists Vande Hei's homecoming plans at the end of the month remain unchanged, even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine has resulted in canceled launches, broken contracts and an escalating war of words by the Russian Space Agency's hardline leader. Many worry Dmitry Rogozin is putting decades of a peaceful off-the-planet partnership at risk, most notably at the International Space Station.

Vande Hei - who on Tuesday breaks the US single spaceflight record of 340 days - is due to leave with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on March 30. The astronaut will have logged 355 days in space by then, setting a new US record. The world record of 438 continuous days in space belongs to Russia.

Despite the deadly conflict down here, retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, America's record-holder until Tuesday, believes the two sides "can hold it together" up in space.

"We need an example set that two countries that historically have not been on the most friendly of terms, can still work somewhere peacefully. And that somewhere is the International Space Station. That's why we need to fight to keep it," Kelly told The Associated Press.

NASA wants to keep the space station running until 2030, as do the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, while the Russians have not committed beyond the original end date of 2024 or so. The US and Russia are the prime operators of the orbiting outpost, permanently occupied for 21 years.

Until SpaceX started launching astronauts in 2020, Americans regularly hitched rides on Russian Soyuz capsules for tens of millions of dollars per seat. The US and Russian space agencies are still working on a long-term barter system in which a Russian would launch on a SpaceX capsule beginning this fall and an American would fly up on the Soyuz. That would help ensure a US and Russian station presence at all times.

Vande Hei, 55, a retired Army colonel, moved into the space station last April, launching on a Soyuz from Kazakhstan with Pyotr Dubrov and another Russian. He and Dubrov stayed twice as long as usual to accommodate a Russian film crew that visited in October.

As the situation 260 miles (420 kilometers) below intensified last month, Vande Hei acknowledged he was avoiding conversations about Ukraine with Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov, their Russian commander. Three more Russians will blast off from Kazakhstan on Friday to replace them. "We haven't talked about that too much. I'm not sure we really want to go there," Vande Hei told a TV interviewer in mid-February.

Space station operations continue as always - in orbit and on Earth, according to NASA.

"It would be a sad day for international operations if we can't continue to peacefully operate in space," said NASA's human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders, who noted it would be "very difficult" to go it alone.

NASA's space station program manager Joel Montalbano, during a press briefing Monday, said Russia's space agency has confirmed that they're ready to bring all three back - Vande Hei and the two Russians. A NASA plane and small team will be on hand in Kazakhstan, as usual, to whisk Vande Hei back home to Houston.

Source: Agencies and Xinhua News

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NASA says Mark Vande Hei will return from ISS on Russian spacecraft
Washington DC (UPI) Mar 14, 2021
NASA on Monday said astronaut Mark Vande Hei would return from the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as planned, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The space agency said Vande Hei, who was sent to the ISS in April of last year, is scheduled to land aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and return to the United States on a Gulfstream jet - as is customary for NASA astronauts - on March 30. Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's International Space Station pro ... read more

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