NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei joined two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, undocked from the International Space Station and plunged back to Earth Wednesday, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan to close out a U.S.-record 355-day stay in space.
Despite a break in East-West relations following, station operations have continued normally and Vande Hei was ferried home as planned with Soyuz MS-19/65S commander Anton Shkaplerov and flight engineer Pyotr Dubrov.
Descending under a billowing orange-and-white parachute, the Soyuz module made a jarring rocket-assisted touchdown near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 7:28 a.m. EDT (5:28 p.m. local time).
Russian recovery crews and NASA support personnel quickly converged on the spacecraft to help the crew members out one-by-one for initial medical checks. All three were carried to nearby recliners, where they appeared in good spirits as they began readjusting to the unfamiliar tug of gravity.
For Shkaplerov, who chauffeured a Russian actress and her director to the space station last October, the touchdown closed out a 176-day flight, his fourth.
Vande Hei, completing his second flight, and first-time flier Dubrov took off aboard a different Soyuz last April. During their stay in space, the two men travelled 150 million miles over 5,680 orbits, logging 355 days, seven hours and 45 minutes off-planet.
That set a single-flight record for a U.S. astronaut, moving Vande Hei past retired astronaut Scott Kelly's 340-day mark and Christina Koch's 329 days aloft.
"I think it's great," Kelly said in a recent interview with CBS News. "What's the saying, records are made to be broken? And that means we're doing things better than we did it before. So yeah, congratulations to him."
Including a previous station visit, Vande Hei's total time in space now stands at 523 days, moving him up to third on the list of most experienced NASA astronauts behind Peggy Whitson and Jeff Williams. Kelly moved down a spot to fourth.
But the Russians hold the records for most time in space overall and with Wednesday's landing, Shkaplerov had logged 708 days off-planet over four flights, making him the world's seventh most experienced space flier. In comparison, Vande Hei ranks 23rd on the world list.
In any case, Vande Hei downplayed the new U.S. record before leaving the space station, saying "I don't think it's a record that I would even attribute to me; it's a record for our space program."
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Scott and Christina, both," he said in a NASA interview. "And I know they would both be extremely happy, as the explorers that they are, to see that we're furthering exploration, we're getting people into space for longer and longer periods of time."
After a two-hour flight aboard a Russian helicopter to an airport in Karaganda, Vande Hei faced a long flight back to his home in Houston aboard a NASA jet while Shkaplerov and Dubrov headed home to the cosmonaut training center in Star City, near Moscow.
Like all space station astronauts, Vande Hei spent two hours a day working out with resistive weights, strapped onto a zero-gravity treadmill or riding in place on an exercise bike.
Even so, astronauts returning from long-duration stays in space need several months to readjust to gravity.
"You know, 355 days is a long time," Kelly said. "I know — 340 days is a long time. I hope he feels good when he gets back but yeah, it's challenging when you've been up there that long."
Facing months of physical rehabilitation to regain his "land legs," Vande Hei told a NASA interviewer last week he was especially looking forward to "making a cup of coffee for my wife and myself and then sitting in bed and talking to each other while we're either reading or catching up on the news."
"Just having relaxing Saturday mornings is a wonderful thing," he said. "And then after that, I'd probably say guacamole and chips."
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