The fate of an American astronaut remains uncertain after the head of the Russian space agency threatened to abandon him on the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei was scheduled to land in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on March 30, 2022. But a February 26 video from Russian space agency director Dmitry Rogozin put that back in question, when he threatened to leave Vande Hei in space and even separate the Russian and American parts of the laboratory in orbit.
Rogozin was responding to comments by US President Joe Biden, who said on February 24 that sanctions against Russia would “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” known as Roscosmos. In a March 5 social media post, a Russian state-owned news agency described Rogozin’s response as a joke.
Threats from Putin’s staunch ally have been accompanied by a steady stream of outbursts on social media since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Rogozin’s Telegram and Twitter pages are full of disinformation and state propaganda, and he has also apparently threatened to send the ISS crashing into the United States, Europe, India and China.
After post a video of workers removing American and Japanese flags from a Russian rocket, Rogozin even sparked an online spat with former US astronaut Scott Kelly, who replied, “Without these flags and the currency they bring in, your space program will be worth nothing.”
The United States has relied heavily on Russia for access to the ISS since NASA’s last space shuttle took flight in 2011. Since 2020, NASA has also hired private companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the ISS. ISS, which orbits the Earth at an average distance of 420 km.
The first parts of the ISS were launched in 1998. In 2000, an American and two Russians became its first residents. Although divided into American and Russian sections, the ISS has long been considered the symbol of the scientific partnership between the two geopolitical rivals.
Last year, Russia announced it would retire from the ISS in 2025. In January, NASA revealed plans to decommission the ISS in 2031 and send it crashing into the South Pacific Ocean.
Vande Hei arrived at the ISS on April 9, 2021. Next week, he will break Scott Kelly’s record for the longest time in space by an American astronaut. Including Vande Hei, there are currently seven people aboard the ISS: four Americans, two Russians and one German.
NASA did not respond to Rogozin’s remarks and said it expects Vande Hei to return to earth aboard the Russian spacecraft as planned, after a 355-day spaceflight. The longest space flight ever was made by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov in 1995 after 437 days aboard the Mir space station.
Citing sanctions, earlier this month Russia canceled the launch of a British satellite company.
With files from Reuters
An earlier version incorrectly stated that Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov spent 437 days aboard the ISS. He spent time aboard the Mir space station.