Soyuz capsule returns three astronauts safely, completing Mark Vande Hei’s 355 day mission

A Russian Soyuz capsule successfully returned three astronauts back to Earth today, thus completing Mark Vande Hei’s 355 day mission, the longest so far achieved by an American astronaut.

Vande Hei’s record is the fifth longest overall, behind four other Russians on Mir. Musa Manarov and Vladimir Titov were the first to complete a year-long flight in 1987-1988. Sergei Avdeyev’s flight of 381 days on Mir in 1998-1999 is the second longest. Valery Polyakov holds the record for the longest flight, 437 days in 1994-1995.

Now that Vande Hei is safely back on Earth, expect Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, to make some announcement in the next day or so further limiting cooperation at ISS. It is my expectation he will end the discussions between Roscosmos and NASA to exchange one-for-one flights on each other’s capsules. While the partnership to maintain and occupy ISS will continue, Rogozin will likely end any cooperation otherwise.

Mark Vande Hei sets new record for longest American space flight

Mark Vande Hei today set a new record for the longest American space flight, exceeding the 340 days flown by Scott Kelly on ISS in 2012-2013.

Since Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth on March 30th, his total record flight time should end up being 355 days, just short of a full year.

Vande Hei arrived at the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on April 9, 2021, knowing at the time that he would be there for at least for the five to six months that is typical today for expedition crew members. His mission was extended by NASA in September to allow for a Russian movie crew to visit the orbiting complex and, more importantly, protect against a crew rotation schedule that could leave the station without any Americans on board.

Vande Hei’s record will be the fifth longest, behind four other Russians on Mir. Musa Manarov and Vladimir Titov were the first to complete a year long flight in 1987-1988. Valery Polyakov holds the record for the longest flight, 437 days in 1994-1995. Sergei Avdeyev’s flight of 381 days on Mir in 1998-1999 is the second longest.

Russia today confirmed it will return NASA astronaut as planned

As expected, Russia today confirmed in its state-run TASS news agency that NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will come back to Earth in its Soyuz capsule on March 30th, as planned.

The Soyuz MS-19 space capsule with Anton Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei is expected to land on March 30. Dubrov and Vande Hei arrived on the ISS in the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft together with Oleg Novitsky. This descent module brought back to Earth the two feature film crew members – actress Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko, who had arrived on the ISS together with Anton Shkaplerov in the Soyuz MS-19 on October 5.

There had been a number of stories in the mainstream press suggesting the Russians would leave Vande Hei behind in response to the international sanctions being imposed on Russia because of its invasion of the Ukraine. All were based on a single comment by Roscosmos’ head Dmitry Rogozin, who had simply noted visuals from a Russian news source and aired in the U.S. that showed the Russian half of ISS separating away and leaving Vande Hei behind. Rogozin was only noting that the U.S. press was worried about this possibility.

There was no chance the Russians would separate its half of ISS now. Zero. To do such a thing will require several months of preparation. For example, the Russian half has at least one module, Zvezda, that is failing. If Russia ever creates its own new space station using part of ISS, it will have to launch some new modules first.

Also, for Russia to leave Vande Hei behind would be a public relations disaster that would only make worse the disaster of its invasion of the Ukraine. Russia might end its partnership at ISS in the near future, but it won’t do it in a way that might threaten the lives of any astronauts, from any nation.

Astronaut’s mission on ISS will be extended to almost a year

As expected because the Russian’s have taken his return seat in October to bring home two commercial passengers (a film director and his star actress), the mission of astronaut Mark Vande Hei has been extended to March for a total of 353 days in space, just short of a year.

This time will exceed the previous American record for the longest spaceflight, set by Scott Kelly during his 340 day mission in 2015. It remains below about four Russian flights that lasted a full year or more, including the longest flight so far by Valeri Polyakov of 438 days in 1993 and 1994.

Meanwhile, there is no word on the state of the pinched nerve that forced NASA to replace Vande Hei on an upcoming spacewalk. It is likely that weightlessness is probably helping it heal, but NASA and Vande Hei are presently keeping this personal medical information private.

ISS spacewalk postponed due to “minor medical issue”

NASA announced yesterday that a spacewalk planned for today on ISS has been postponed because of ” a minor medical issue” involving American astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

This issue is not a medical emergency. The spacewalk is not time-sensitive and crew members are continuing to move forward with other station work and activities. Teams are assessing the next available opportunity to conduct the spacewalk following the SpaceX CRS-23 cargo resupply launch planned for Aug. 28 and upcoming Russian spacewalks.

The NASA announcement provided no other information, which is unfortunate. While Vande Hei’s medical privacy must be respected, his decision to not disclose the issue will only fuel some foolish speculation that is likely false. It is always better to be transparent.

Update: It appears the medical issue was a pinched nerve, which will likely cause the spacewalk to be delayed into September at the soonest.