NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei breaks the US record of 355 days on a space station

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who was flown to the International Space Station from Russia aboard a Soyuz spacecraft last April, returned on Wednesday to a world ravaged by war in Ukraine and escalating tensions between superpowers when he a 355-day stay in orbit, the longest, single flight completed by a US astronaut.

Despite the ongoing invasion of Russia in Ukraine and a sharp Break in East-West spatial relations — including ominous rhetoric and even a YouTube video later described as a “joke” suggesting that Vande Hei could be left aboard the station — the NASA astronaut and two cosmonaut crew members returned exactly as planned on Wednesday earth back.

Outgoing Expedition 66 commander Anton Shkaplerov handed the lab over to NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn on Tuesday in a traditional change of command ceremony marked by hugs and handshakes, without a hint of the discord that the US-Russian forces were facing relationships on earth threatened.

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Outgoing space station commander Anton Shkaplerov, left, hands over a symbolic key to the space station to NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn in a traditional handover ceremony on Tuesday. Shkaplerov, cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov (immediate left of background legend) and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei (right of legend) plan to return to Earth on Wednesday.

NASA television


“I am very proud to have been the commander of this outstanding crew,” Shkaplerov said before presenting Marshburn with a symbolic “key to the space station.” “People have problems on Earth, in orbit we are a crew. I think the ISS is (a) symbol of friendship and cooperation and (the) symbol of the future of space exploration.”

Marshburn said, “It is an honor and a privilege to assume command of the International Space Station and to continue this international partnership and legacy in space travel. I want to thank you, you’ve been a wonderful commander, I really can’t thank you enough. “

After saying goodbye to their seven station crew members late Tuesday, Shkaplerov, Vande Hei and Flight Engineer Pyotr Dubrov strapped themselves to their Soyuz MS-19/65S ferry and undocked from the Russian Rassvet module at 3:21 a.m. EDT Wednesday away.

After pausing to give Dubrov time to conduct a photo op of the station’s Russian modules, Soyuz Commander Shkaplerov oversaw an automated missile launch from orbit and a fiery fall back to Earth that took place in the steppes of Kazakhstan near the town of Dzhezkazgan landed at 7:28 a.m. Wednesday (5:28 p.m. local time).

Vande Hei and first flyer Dubrov have spent 355 days seven hours and 45 minutes from Earth, completing 5,680 orbits covering 150.1 million miles. Including a previous space station stay in 2017-18, Vande Hei’s total time in space across two missions is now 523 days, placing him third on the list of most experienced US astronauts.

When asked how he’s kept a positive attitude during such a long flight away from friends and family, Vande Hei said he’s tried to “just pay attention to the day I’m on and not think about how many.” days are left.”

“And I’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful crew members,” he said in a recent space-to-ground interview with CBS News. “Everyone just gets along fantastic and it’s been a pleasure.”

He also made it a point to meditate for 20 minutes each day in the domed compartment with multiple windows, enjoying a spectacular view of the earth amidst a sea of ​​stars.

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Every day before work, Mark Vande Hei enjoys a moment in the domed compartment with the many windows, where he likes to mediate. The Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft, visible through the center window, will return Vande Hei, commander Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov to Earth early Wednesday.

NASA


“Each morning, before everyone else is up, I can sit with the lights off for 20 minutes and look at the stars,” he said. And I feel very, very fortunate to have had those experiences. … I wish I could find a good way to describe it to people. It’s impressive every time.”

NASA flight surgeons and support staff flew to Kazakhstan last Friday aboard a NASA jet and were on site at the Soyuz landing site to welcome Vande Hei home and conduct initial medical assessments as he began to recover after nearly a year adjust to gravity again in weightlessness.

Vande Hei and his escort crew will fly back to Houston’s Johnson Space Center shortly after landing, while Shkaplerov and Dubrov will board a Russian plane to fly to the Star City cosmonaut training center near Moscow.

Before months of physical rehabilitation to regain his “land legs,” Vande Hei told a NASA interviewer last week that he was particularly looking forward to “making my wife and I a cup of coffee and then sitting in bed and talking, while we either read or catch up on the news.”

“Just having a relaxed Saturday morning is a wonderful thing,” he said. “And after that I’d probably say guacamole and chips.”

Dubrov and Vande Hei were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard another Soyuz on April 9, 2021, joining spacecraft commander Oleg Novitskiy. As they took off, Vande Hei and Dubrov did not know how long their stay in space would last as the Russian launch sequence was uncertain.

“I didn’t know for certain that the flight was going to be that long,” he told CBS News. “But I definitely knew it was a possibility and I made sure my family was aware of it. And they all agreed that I should still say yes. So no, I had no concerns. I felt like it was an opportunity to fill a need that we had and I was very fortunate to be able to fill it.”

Last October, Russia launched a Soyuz with Shkaplerov, a Russian actress and her director, to shoot scenes for a movie on board the space station. The actress-director took the seats that would normally have been available to bring Dubrov and Vande Hei back to Earth after a six-month stint in space.

Novitskiy brought both home last October, leaving Shkaplerov to bring Dubrov and Vande Hei back to Earth this week after almost a full year in space. The mission duration for Shkaplerov is 176 days.

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The International Space Station seen from below by astronauts aboard a departing Crew Dragon spacecraft.

NASA


Several Russian cosmonauts have completed flights lasting more than a year – the world record stands at 437 days 17 hours – but Vande Hei’s 355-day mark sets a new single flight record for US astronauts and is eclipsing Scott Kelly’s 340 day mark and 328 days stay of Christina Koch on board the station, the world record for a woman.

“I think it’s great,” Kelly said in a recent phone interview with CBS News. “How do you say, records are made to be broken? And that means we’re doing things better than before. So yes, congratulations to him.”

On his perspective, Vande Hei said, “I don’t think it’s a record that I would take credit for, it’s a record for our space program.”

“I have tremendous respect for Scott and Christina, both of them,” he said in a NASA interview. “And I know that as the explorers that they are, they would both be very happy to see us push exploration and put people into space for longer and longer periods of time.”

“I expect that record to be broken and that will be another achievement for our space program,” he added.

But this record is not broken by Vande Hei. He told his wife before launch that the current mission would be his last.

“This will be the end of a phase in my life,” he said. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t go into space again. So this is going to be bittersweet. I am very, very grateful to have had this amazing opportunity to come to the space station, to be up here with such wonderful people who I will consider friends for the rest of my life, to serve my country and all humanity.”

“So there’s going to be gratitude for that, excitement for the future and also a bit of sadness because I’m going to close the door on that, I won’t be able to come back,” he added. “And this is a very, very special place.”

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