After much speculation and concern the past month whether Russia would allow a US astronaut to ride back to Earth in a Soyuz spacecraft, Mark Vande Hei and two cosmonauts landed safely in Kazakhstan on March 30.
Mostly lost amid the political tensions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei quietly set a record for the longest single spaceflight by an American, at 355 days. Vande Hei eclipsed astronaut Scott Kelly’s seemingly more heralded long-duration mission on the International Space Station in 2015, when he and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent 340 days in space. Cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov also spent 355 days on his first spaceflight, along with Vande Hei.
Vande Hei, Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov landed under parachute at 7:28 a.m. (5:28 p.m. Kazakhstan time) southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. Vande Hei tweeted that he was thrilled to be “back on Mother Earth.”
The crew was taken for post-landing checkups in nearby Karaganda, Kazakhstan, aboard Russian helicopters. Vande Hei then boarded a NASA plane, which stopped in Germany for refueling before returning to the US. The plane reached Ellington Field in Houston this morning, March 31.
The landing and departure came without tensions or any show of political propaganda. However, NASA avoided Russian airspace when it flew to Kazakhstan for the landing.
NASA said that Vande Hei’s extended mission will provide researchers the opportunity to observe the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans as the agency plans to return to the Moon under the Artemis program and prepare for exploration of Mars.
“Mark’s mission is not only record-breaking, but also paving the way for future human explorers on the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a press release. “Our astronauts make incredible sacrifices in the name of science, exploration, and cutting-edge technology development, not least among them time away from loved ones. NASA and the nation are proud to welcome Mark home and grateful for his incredible contributions throughout his year-long stay on the International Space Station.”
Vande Hei launched April 9, 2021, alongside cosmonauts Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy. Vande Hei completed approximately 5,680 orbits of the Earth and a journey of more than 150 million miles, roughly the equivalent of 312 trips to the Moon and back. He witnessed the arrival of 15 visiting spacecraft and new modules, and the departure of 14 visiting spacecraft.
You can see a detailed list here of the experiments Vande Hei worked on during his time on the ISS, which covered Expeditions 64-66.
With the departure of this crew, Expedition 67 officially began aboard the station. NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn recently took over as station commander, and is joined by NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Matthias Maurer, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov.