After more than a month of speculation, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei did in fact return to Earth inside a Russian Soyuz spacecraft Wednesday, on the dusty steppes of Kazakhstan.
The landing of the small descent module was nominal, with clear skies in Kazakhstan a couple of hours before local sunset. Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov emerged first from the vehicle, followed by Flight Engineer Pyotr Dubrov, and then finally Vande Hei, who soon donned a pair of sunglasses and flashed a thumbs-up at the camera.
Dubrov and Vande Hei both flew a 355-day mission, having launched to the International Space Station on April 9, 2021. For Vande Hei, this set a US duration record for a single spaceflight. A Russian cosmonaut, Valeri Polyakov, holds the global record for such a mission, having spent 437 days on the Mir space station in the mid-1990s.
There were no signs of the geopolitical tensions during the landing or broadcast feed provided by Roscosmos. At one point, the large video board in Mission Control Moscow flashed up a “Welcome back, Mark!” greeting in English. All of the televised images and broadcast commentary showed no hint of the conflict, and there was absolutely zero Russian war propaganda to be seen in the Soyuz landing zone.
About 30 minutes after landing, the three crew members were taken into a pop-up medical tent for initial tests and will then fly by helicopter to Karaganda, a city in north-central Kazakhstan. There, the crew will separate, with Vande Hei and his NASA support staff boarding a NASA Gulfstream jet to return to Houston. At no time during this return journey to the United States will he fly over Russian territory.
The smooth operations on Thursday suggest that the ISS partnership is likely to continue despite Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine. Senior US space officials have made it clear they want to continue flying the space station and working with Russia. Were NASA to back out of the partnership with Russia and 13 other nations, it would be essentially breaking an international treaty, and that is very unlikely to happen.
That has left the ball in Russia’s court, and despite bluster by the country’s senior spaceflight official, Dmitry Rogozin, there are no signs of this happening. If anything, the seemingly normal landing on Wednesday suggests Russia wants to keep the partnership going as well.
Perhaps the most immediate question, then, is whether NASA and European astronauts continue to fly on Soyuz vehicles. While NASA now has access to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which has more than enough capacity to accommodate US and European human spaceflight needs, from a rotation standpoint NASA would like to fly astronauts on Soyuz. Why? Because it ensures that there is a US or European astronaut on board to tend to the Western half of the space station at all times, even when there is just a single crew, as happens during some handovers.
NASA and Roscosmos have an agreement in principle to continue this, with the first Russian cosmonaut—Anna Kikina—scheduled to fly on the SpaceX Crew-5 mission this September. Around the same time, NASA’s Frank Rubio is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz mission. Both astronauts are continuing to train for these assignments, but the deal to make this happen has not been formally signed off on.
So what happens next? This probably will depend on the war in Ukraine. If tensions ratchet down and the process is moving toward some kind of peaceful resolution, then the crew swap will probably take place. But if the war rages on, it very well could not.
What is certain today is that NASA is very happy to have Mark Vande Hei back on Earth and will be even happier tonight when he lands safely in Houston, Texas.