NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, launched by Russia to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft last April, returned Wednesday to a world torn by war in Ukraine and escalating superpower tension when he closed out a 355-day stay in orbit, the longest single flight by a U.S. astronaut.
Despite Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and a sharp— including threatening rhetoric and even a YouTube video, later said to be a "joke," suggesting Vande Hei could be left behind aboard the station — the NASA astronaut and two cosmonaut crewmates returned to Earth on Wednesday exactly as planned.
Outgoing Expedition 66 commander Anton Shkaplerov turned the lab over to NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn on Tuesday in a traditional change-of-command ceremony marked by hugs and handshakes, with no hint of the discord threatening U.S.-Russian relations on Earth.
"I'm very proud I was the commander of this excellent crew," Shkaplerov said before handing a symbolic "key to the space station" over to Marshburn. "People have problems on Earth, on orbit we are one crew. I think ISS is (a) symbol of the friendship and cooperation and (the) symbol of future of exploration of space."
Said Marshburn: "It's an honor and a privilege to accept command of the International Space Station and continuing that international partnership and that legacy in spaceflight. Want to thank you, you've been a wonderful commander, really can't thank you enough."
After bidding their seven station crewmates farewell late Tuesday, Shkaplerov, Vande Hei and flight engineer Pyotr Dubrov strapped into their Soyuz MS-19/65S ferry ship and undocked from the Russian Rassvet module at 3:21 a.m. EDT Wednesday.
After a pause to give Dubrov time to carry out a photo survey of the station's Russian modules, Soyuz commander Shkaplerov monitored an automated de-orbit rocket firing and a fiery plunge back to Earth, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 7:28 a.m. Wednesday (5:28 p.m. local time).
Vande Hei and first-time flier Dubrov logged 355 days seven hours and 45 minutes off planet, covering 5,680 orbits spanning 150.1 million miles. Including an earlier space station stay in 2017-18, Vande Hei's total time in space across two missions now stands at 523 days, moving him up to third on the list of most-experienced U.S. astronauts.
Asked how he kept a positive attitude during such a long flight away from friends and family, Vande Hei said he tried "to pay attention to just the day that I'm on and not think about how many days are left."
"And I've been very, very fortunate to have wonderful crewmates," he told CBS News in a recent space-to-ground interview. "Everybody's just getting along fantastically, and it's been a pleasure."
He also made a point of meditating for 20 minutes each day in the multi-window cupola compartment, taking in spectacular views of Earth amid a sea of stars.
"Every morning, before everybody else is awake, with all the lights off, I can sit and look for 20 minutes at the stars," he said. And I feel very, very fortunate to have those experiences. ... I wish I could find a good way to describe it to people. It's awe-inspiring every time."
NASA flight surgeons and support personnel flew to Kazakhstan aboard a NASA jet last Friday and were on hand at the Soyuz landing site to welcome Vande Hei home and to carry out initial medical checks as he began readjusting to gravity after nearly a full year in weightlessness.
Vande Hei and his support crew will fly back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston shortly after landing while Shkaplerov and Dubrov board a Russian aircraft for a flight to the cosmonaut training center in Star City near Moscow.
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."
from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a different Soyuz on April 9, 2021, joining spacecraft commander Oleg Novitskiy. When they took off, Vande Hei and Dubrov did not know how long their stay in space might last because of uncertainty about the Russian launch sequence.
"I didn't know with certainty that the flight would be this long," he told CBS News. "But I certainly knew that it was a possibility, and I made sure my family was aware of that. And they all agreed that I should still say yes. So no, I didn't have any second thoughts. I felt like it was an opportunity to fill a need that we had, and I was very happy to be able to fill it."
Last October, Russia launched a Soyuz carrying Shkaplerov, a Russian actress and her director to shoot scenes for a movie aboard the space station. The actress and director took the seats that normally would have been available to carry Dubrov and Vande Hei back to Earth after a six-month stay in space.
Novitskiy ferried both of them home last October, leaving Shkaplerov behind to bring Dubrov and Vande Hei back to Earth this week after nearly a full year in space. Mission duration for Shkaplerov will stand at 176 days.
Several Russian cosmonauts have logged flights lasting more than a year — the world record is 437 days 17 hours — but Vande Hei's 355-day mark sets a new single-flight record for U.S. astronauts, eclipsingand aboard the station, the world record for a female.
"I think it's great," Kelly said in a recent telephone 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."
As for his perspective, Vande Hei said "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."
"I expect this record to be broken, and that will be a further success for our space program," he added.
But that record will not be broken by Vande Hei. He told his wife before launch the current mission would be his last.
"This will be the end of a phase of my life," he said. "I promised my wife I will not be flying to space again. So that will be bittersweet. I'm very, very grateful to have had this amazing opportunity to come up to the space station, to be up here with such wonderful people who I will consider friends for the rest of my life, to serve my country and all of humanity."
"So there'll be gratitude for that, enthusiasm for the future and a little bit of sadness, too, because I'll be shutting the door on that, I won't be able to come back," he added. "And this is a very, very special place."
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