Late Tuesday night, Mark Vande Hei, like many NASA astronauts before him, will board a Russian spacecraft docked at the International Space Station for the return journey to Earth.
Orbiting about 250 miles above the surface, the space station is one of the few places where day-to-day cooperation between the United States and Russia continues despite the disruption in diplomatic and economic ties due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
About eight hours later, Mr. Vande Hei and two Russian astronauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, are scheduled to bounce for a landing in Kazakhstan, where they will be met by NASA and Russian personnel.
“As we’ve always done,” said Joel Montalbano, the space station’s program manager for NASA, during a news conference a few weeks ago.
When is the departure and how can I follow it?
Departure begins at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time when Mr. Vande Hei, Mr. Shkaplerov and Mr. Dubrov bid farewell to the other seven astronauts still aboard the station. At midnight on Wednesday they are supposed to close the hatch of the Soyuz spacecraft that will take them home.
NASA will stream the hatch closure and other parts of the departure and return on its website and YouTube.
Do the US and Russia still cooperate in space?
President Biden has sharply condemned President Vladimir V. Putin, and the United States government has imposed a wide range of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, including some related to aerospace technologies. But cooperation in orbit continued.
And this despite belligerent statements by Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space program. He shared a video that suggested the Russians could leave Mr Vande Hei behind. NASA officials have carefully sidestepped what Mr. Rogozin said, insisting nothing has changed.
“For the safety of our astronauts, the working relationship between NASA and our international partners will continue,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, during his speech on NASA’s state of affairs on Monday. “And that includes the professional relationship between the cosmonauts and our astronauts.”
Other relationships in space were not spared. The European Space Agency has delayed a rover mission to Mars because it relied on a Russian rocket. And a British satellite internet company, OneWeb, canceled a number of launches that used Russian Soyuz rockets and switched some of them to SpaceX rockets.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Ongoing peace talks. During Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Istanbul, Russia vowed it would “reduce” military activity near Kyiv, and Ukraine agreed to declare permanently neutral. Even so, weeks of further negotiations could be needed to reach an agreement, and Russia appears determined to seize more territory in eastern Ukraine.
What happens when the astronauts land?
Many American government officials were brought home from Russia because of the invasion of Ukraine. But a usual NASA contingent of flight physicians, public affairs officials, and representatives from the astronaut office and space station management will be there to meet Mr. Vande Hei upon his landing.
“No deviation from previous plans for the Soyuz landing,” said Gary Jordan, a NASA spokesman.
After initial medical checks, the astronauts will rest in tents for a while before traveling by helicopter to the airport, where Mr. Vande Hei and his NASA colleagues will board a Gulfstream jet and take off.
Mr Jordan said a NASA podcast episode describing an earlier return was “an accurate representation of the sequence of events to be expected”.
Approximately 24 hours after landing in Kazakhstan, Mr. Vande Hei will be back in Houston.
How long has Mark Vande Hei been in orbit?
The landing will end nearly a year in space for Mr. Vande Hei. His stay of 355 days is the longest single space flight by an American. This exceeded the 340-day mark set by Scott Kelly six years ago.
“The last day is different,” Mr. Kelly recalled in an interview at the end of his space journey.
Recent tasks included cleaning up his area for the next astronaut, discarding unneeded items, and checking in with friends and family about ground return plans.