Russia’s space agency has said it would return US astronaut Mark Vande Hei from the International Space Station onboard Russia’s space capsule vehicle as scheduled amid tensions between the two countries over the situation in Ukraine.
After spending nearly a year aboard the ISS, Nasa astronaut Vande Hei – along with Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov – is scheduled to return to Earth on 30 March on a Russian capsule.
Critics wondered if Russia’s space agency Roscosmos would agree to bring the American astronaut back to Earth amid the sanctions imposed by the US.
The space agency’s chief Dmitry Rogozin even uploaded to his Telegram channel an extract from a Fox News broadcast that claimed Russia might leave the Nasa astronaut in space, Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS noted.
Some of the sanctions imposed by the US on Russia are also expected to affect the Russian space agency’s future programs, US president Joe Biden said last month. Roscosmos has continued to retaliate by pulling out of several longstanding partnerships, including an announcement that it would cease operations at the European spaceport in French Guiana.
The European Space Agency also said its joint mission with Russia to Mars was “very unlikely” due to sanctions linked to the war in Ukraine.
Many space experts expressed concern that Rogozin is putting decades of peaceful cooperation between Russia and the US in matters of space at risk, most notably their partnership at the ISS.
But amid these tensions in cooperation over space missions, the Russian space agency has now confirmed it would bring back the US astronaut from the ISS as scheduled.
“US astronaut Mark Vande Hei will travel back home in the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft together with Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov on March 30. Roscosmos has never let anybody doubt its reliability as a partner,” the Russian space agency’s press service said.
Vande Hei, 55, a retired Army colonel, who moved into the ISS in April, breaks the US single spaceflight record of 340 days on Tuesday. The US astronaut is scheduled to leave with the two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on March 30.
Despite the conflict on the ground, Nasa said the orbiting lab is operating as usual with the astronauts continuing to do their jobs.
But Mr Vande Hei said he was avoiding conversations about Ukraine with the Russian cosmonauts.
“We haven’t talked about that too much. I’m not sure we really want to go there,” Vande Hei told a TV interviewer in mid-February.
“It would be a sad day for international operations if we can’t continue to peacefully operate in space,” NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders said, adding that it would be “very difficult” to do it alone.