STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS AND USED WITH PERMISSION
Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deteriorating relations, joint operation of the International Space Station is continuing as normal with plans in place to return NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei to Earth as planned at aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft later this month, a NASA official said. said Monday.
Joel Montalbano, space station program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the Russians had assured NASA that Vande Hei and his two cosmonaut crewmates would land in Kazakhstan on March 30, as had been planned before the start. of the invasion, to conclude a record mission.
At touchdown, Vande Hei and cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, both launched aboard another Soyuz on April 9, will have spent 355 days in space, setting a new single flight record for an American astronaut. On Tuesday, Vande Hei will surpass the current US record of 340 days set by astronaut Scott Kelly in 2015-16.
Vande Hei and Dubrov will return to Earth with Commander Anton Shkaplerov of Soyuz MS-19/65S, which was launched last October and will complete a 176-day stay in space.
“Nothing has changed in the last three weeks, the control centers are working successfully, flawlessly, transparently, we don’t see any impact on what is happening around us,” Montalbano said. “We are able to do our job. We are aware of what is happening, but we are able to do our job, to continue our operations.
The invasion of Ukraine, the imposition of US and European sanctions and the fiery rhetoric of Dmitry Rogozin, director of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, have raised questions in some quarters about Russia’s commitment to continuing joint operations aboard the ISS.
As designed, the space station requires both nations to operate normally, with the Russians providing the propulsion needed to keep the laboratory in orbit and NASA providing orientation control, excess electrical power and satellite communications.
While a steady stream of vitriolic tweets raised concerns about a possible breakdown in US-Russian space relations, even Rogozin dismissed what he called “hysterical” rumors that Vande Hei could be left behind. station.
Because Vande Hei launched himself aboard a Soyuz, his pressure suit, worn during launch, re-entry and landing, is Russian. Astronauts launched aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon ferries wear pressure suits designed by SpaceX and compatible with the life support systems of the American capsule. Vande Hei’s Russian costume is not.
“I can tell you for sure that Mark is coming home with this Soyuz,” Montalbano told reporters on Monday. “We are in communication with our Russian colleagues, there is no vagueness on that. The three crew members return home.
As usual, when an astronaut returns to Earth aboard a Soyuz, a NASA contingent of approximately 20 flight surgeons and other support personnel will travel to Kazakhstan aboard a NASA plane to perform initial medical tests and fly Vande Hei back to Houston for debriefing and physiotherapy to help him readjust to gravity after a year in space.
NASA is preparing for a particularly busy spring and fall aboard the space station with several American and Russian crews flying to and from the outpost. It’s not yet clear how deteriorating international relations might affect those plans, but NASA is moving forward assuming both sides continue normal operations.
Vande Hei will return to Earth 12 days after another Soyuz carries its crew replacements – Soyuz MS-21/67S Commander Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov – to the space station this Friday.
On the same day Vande Hei and his crewmates land, a SpaceX Crew Dragon is to be launched from Kennedy Space Center to carry four commercial flyers to the space station for a 10-day stay managed by Axiom Space in Houston. The flight is the first NASA-sanctioned commercial visit to the outpost.
A week after the Axiom 1 crew landed on April 9, NASA and SpaceX plan to launch another Crew Dragon around April 15.
Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will replace Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, who launched at the lab last October and plan to return to Earth on April 22.
The next crew rotation after that will be around September 1, when a Crew Dragon is scheduled for launch carrying two NASA astronauts and a Japanese aviator. Prior to the Russian invasion, NASA was negotiating with Roscosmos to fill the fourth seat with a cosmonaut and to put an astronaut aboard a Soyuz to be launched later in September.
The idea is to ensure that astronauts and cosmonauts are always on board the station, even if a medical emergency or other problem forces a Crew Dragon or Soyuz to make a sudden departure. Without these mixed crews, an unscheduled departure could leave the station without a Russian or American crew member to operate critical systems.
The Russians had no official comment on the status of the negotiations, but Montalbano said NASA was moving forward.
“At the moment, we are still planning the crew swap job,” he said. “And so we always planned training for cosmonauts to come to Houston and (SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California), and our team to go to Star City (near Moscow) and train for the Soyuz.”