Due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States sees Russia in a different light. However, for people of both nationalities who work together, it would be wiser to avoid the topic. More so if you spend nearly a year together in closed quarters like the International Space Station (ISS).
This was the tactic that 55-year-old NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei adopted when he caught a Russian ride back to Earth on Wednesday, March 30. Sharing a Soyuz capsule with Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov from the Russian Space Agency, the trio landed in Kazakhstan after 355 days on the ISS. Despite tensions between the United States and Russia, the touchdown followed standard procedures, with a team of NASA personnel on hand to whisk Vande Hei immediately to Houston.
NBC Chicago reports that even before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the subject with his two Russian crewmates. Despite getting along “fantastically … I’m not sure we really want to go there,” he said.
Anton Shkaplerov referred to his fellow astronauts as “my space brothers and space sister.”
“People have problem on Earth. On orbit … we are one crew,” Shkaplerov said in a live NASA TV broadcast on Tuesday. The space station is a symbol of “friendship and cooperation and … future of exploration of space.”
In this close-knit environment, Mark Vande Hei broke NASA’s previous record for a single space mission by 15 days. “Broken records mean we’re making progress,” said NASA’s previous space endurance champ, retired astronaut Scott Kelly, whose 340-day mission ended in 2016. Per NASA’s official press release, Vande Hei’s mission will let researchers observe the effects of long-term spaceflight on humans. This data is paramount as the agency plans to return to the Moon and prepare for its longtime goal of exploring Mars.
Vande Hei logged quite a bit of travel during his time on the ISS. This includes 5,680 orbits of the Earth, totaling 150 million miles or about 312 trips to the Moon and back. He and the crew entertained visitors fairly regularly as they welcomed 15 visiting spacecraft and new modules and saw the departure of 14 visiting spacecraft. The astronaut spent the rest of his time focusing on scientific activities such as plant research and studying the physical sciences.
Finally home, Mark Vande Hei’s immediate plans are to have a cup of coffee with his wife Julie and dig into the chips and guacamole.