Record-breaking US astronaut returns to Earth on Russian rocket

A Nasa astronaut caught a Russian ride back to Earth today after a record-breaking 355 days on board the International Space Station.

Mark Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan alongside two Russian cosmonauts: Pyotr Dubrov, who also spent the past year in space, and Anton Shkaplerov.

Following the conflict in Ukraine, there had been threats from the Russian space agency that Vande Hei would be left behind.

Wind blew the capsule onto its side following touchdown, and the trio emerged into the late afternoon sun one by one.

Vande Hei, the last one out, grinned and waved as he was carried to a reclining chair out in the open Kazakh steppes.

‘Beautiful out here,’ he said, putting on a face mask and ballcap.

Despite escalating tensions between the US and Russia over Putin’s war with Ukraine, Vande Hei’s return followed customary procedures.

A small Nasa team of doctors and other staff was on hand for the touchdown and planned to return immediately to Houston with the 55-year-old astronaut.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the subject with his two Russian crewmates. Despite getting along ‘fantastically … I’m not sure we really want to go there,’ he said.

It was the first taste of gravity for Vande Hei and Dubrov since their Soyuz launch on April 9 last year.

Shkaplerov joined them at the orbiting lab in October, escorting a Russian film crew up for a brief stay. To accommodate that visit, Vande Hei and Dubrov doubled the length of their stay.

Before departing the space station, Shkaplerov embraced his fellow astronauts as ‘my space brothers and space sister.’

‘People have problem on Earth. On orbit … we are one crew,’ Shkaplerov said in a live Nasa TV broadcast Tuesday. The space station is a symbol of ‘friendship and cooperation and … future of exploration of space.’

However, the war tensions have bubbled over into other areas of space with the suspension of European satellite launches on Russian rockets and the Europe-Russia Mars rover stuck on Earth for another two years.

Vande Hei surpassed Nasa’s previous record for the longest single spaceflight by 15 days. Dubrov moved into Russia’s top five, well short of the 437-day, 17-hour marathon by a cosmonaut-physician aboard the 1990s Mir space station that remains the world record.

‘Broken records mean we’re making progress,’ said Nasa’s previous space endurance champ, retired astronaut Scott Kelly, whose 340-day mission ended in 2016.

Like Kelly, Vande Hei underwent medical testing during his long stay to further Nasa’s quest to get astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars. He said daily meditation helped him cope during the mission, twice as long as his first station stint four years earlier.

‘I’ve had an indoor job 24-7 for almost a year so I am looking forward to being outside no matter what kind of weather,’ Vande Hei said in a recent series of Nasa videos.

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