While the bombs are falling on Ukraine, the Russian invasion has not affected Mark Vande Hei’s trip home from the International Space Station (ISS) too much. The American astronaut and the Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov have touched down on Earth aboard a capsule of the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft at 13:28 (Spanish peninsular time).
Russia had come to joke at the beginning of the month -already in the middle of the war-, with the idea of leaving Vande Hei behind, because, in addition to having used a Russian ship for the return, the trip is coordinated from the flight control center of the city of Koriolov, outside Moscow. The return was planned long before Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
The three astronauts have fallen near the Kazakh city of Zhezkazgan, in the province of Karaganda, a steppe region, where the space modules that are previously launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome, also in Kazakhstan, but managed by Roscosmos, the agency Russian space. Seven people remain on board the ISS: three Americans, three Russians – who arrived on the 18th – and a German.
A symbolic and exciting moment was experienced on board the ISS before the return operation began. American crew members who will remain on the ISS hugged their Russian comrades as they prepared to return with Vande Hei. A hug between Russians and Americans while their countries are on opposing sides over the invasion of Ukraine.
A hug in the middle of war
Technical and medical personnel have been transferred to the landing site in several helicopters to carry out the first checks on the expedition members. Vande Hei has broken the record for staying in space for an American, with 355 days (15 more than the previous record) and after his mission was extended in September 2021.
NASA has not detailed whether there are US personnel in the team that receives the astronauts. “After landing, the crew of Soyuz MS-19 will split up, as per standard practice, and Vande Hei will return home to Houston, while the cosmonauts will fly back to their training base in Star City, in Russia”, he has limited himself to stating on his website.
A controversial ‘joke’ and a diminished collaboration
On March 5, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti released a video montage produced by Roscosmos in which the two ISS cosmonauts were seen undocking their module and leaving the American behind while the song ‘Proshchay’ (‘ Goodbye’, in Russian). The video montage sparked criticism, among others, from veteran US astronauts like Scott Kelly and Garrett Reisman.
The director of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, then wanted to play down the ‘joke’ and called the Western media “hysterical” for drawing the conclusion from the video that Vande Hei was going to be left behind.
At the beginning of March, NASA had already assured that collaboration with Russia regarding the ISS would be maintained. However, sources from the US agency recalled that long before the war they are increasing their “operational flexibility”, that is, trying not to depend so much on Russian ships to send cargo and personnel to the ISS.
The war has destroyed years of cooperation between Russia, the United States and Europe. Russia withdrew its staff weeks ago from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana and canceled Soyuz launches that were scheduled to put European satellites into orbit.
On March 17, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the suspension of the ExoMars mission, one of the most ambitious joint projects between Russia and Europe.
López-Alegría returns to space
Only cooperation on the ISS is saved for now. In fact, the return of the three astronauts today and the arrival at the ISS of three other cosmonauts on the 18th marks the start of the so-called Expedition 66 relay and the start of Expedition 67.
In addition, the ISS will receive on April 3 the visit of four astronauts from a private expedition, the AX-1, in charge of the companies Space X and Axiom. The commander of that visiting crew – who will stay on the ISS until April 13 – is the American astronaut of Spanish origin Miguel López-Alegría, 63 years old. López-Alegría first flew into space in 1995 and for the last time in 2007, 15 years ago.