Three Russian astronauts made no political statement when they boarded the International Space Station in mid-March wearing yellow flight suits accented with blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, according to a NASA astronaut who was on the station at the time to meet them to greet you.
“I think the people who wore them had no idea that people would perceive that as something to do with Ukraine,” said NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who returned to Earth last week. “I think they were kind of caught off guard.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, Mr Vande Hei said the colors were those of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which all three newcomers attended.
Mr. Vande Hei and a Russian astronaut, Pyotr Dubrov, spent 355 days in orbit. She and another Russian astronaut landed in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz capsule after a short trip back to Earth. While relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated on the surface of the Earth following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two countries continued to work together as usual to get the astronauts home safely.
The American astronaut said he didn’t heed the bellicose social media posts of Russia’s space program head Dmitry Rogozin, who shared a video suggesting the Russians could pin Mr. Vande Hei on the space station.
“Honestly, I heard about the tweets from my wife,” said Mr. Vande Hei. “I never took those tweets as anything serious. I just had too much faith in our previous collaboration to take those tweets as anything other than something intended for an audience other than myself.”
He said people on the channel were talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It wasn’t a subject I shied away from with my crewmates,” he said. “They weren’t very long discussions, but I did ask them how they were feeling and sometimes asked pointed questions.”
Mr. Vande Hei also said that he trusts his Russian colleagues. “We supported each other in everything,” he said. “And I never had any doubts about continuing to work with them. Very good professionals, technically competent and wonderful people.”
Mr. Vande Hei’s 355 consecutive days in space set a record for the longest uninterrupted stay in orbit by an American astronaut. Physically, he’s just getting used to gravity again. “I still feel uncomfortable,” he said. “But humans are very adaptable. And I think that’s a good sign.”
Mentally, however, life is almost back to normal.
“I really thought I would continue this unique perspective of appreciating everything new about being on the planet,” said Mr. Vande Hei. “I’m a little disappointed with how normal it feels. I kind of wanted it to seem weirder being back.”