Record-Breaking NASA Astronaut to Return to Earth on Russian Spacecraft in March

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei of the ISS Expedition 65 prime crew waves his hand as he leaves for the launch of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster carrying the Soyuz MS-18 Yuri Gagarin spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei of the ISS Expedition 65 prime crew waves his hand as he leaves for the launch of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster carrying the Soyuz MS-18 Yuri Gagarin spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images

Space historians reflected on the nations’ long-standing space ties.

Tensions between the United States and Russia are elevated by conflict on Earth—but hundreds of miles beyond it, astronauts from both nations are operating as usual on their common in-space infrastructure, the International Space Station.

And in about one month, a record-breaking American astronaut will ride back to humans’ home planet via a Russian spacecraft.

“[On] March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth,” NASA Spokesperson Josh Finch told Nextgov on Friday. “Upon their return, Vande Hei will hold the American record for the longest single human spaceflight mission of 355 days.”

For decades, Russia and the U.S. have partnered to push the boundaries of space travel—even when the counties and their leadership clashed back down on Earth. Together with certain other nations, the two run the ISS. 

Right now, four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one German astronaut are orbiting aboard that outpost. The ISS is divided into a Russian segment and an American segment. Essentially, Russia relies on the U.S.’ electricity and the U.S. depends on Russia’s propulsion systems in their cooperation. 

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced new and harsh sanctions against Russia, in response to the latter leading a still-evolving, large-scale invasion of Ukraine. He explicitly noted that some of the provisions were meant to directly degrade Russia’s space program.

Not long after those sanctions were unveiled, Russia’s top space boss warned typical ISS-centered collaboration might not be a given in this contemporary conflict.

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Station (ISS) from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or...Europe?" Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter. “There is also the possibility of a 500-ton structure falling on India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?”

America’s space agency struck a different, lighter tone.

“NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station. The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation,” Finch told Nextgov. “No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”

Exactly how these geopolitical strains will play out remains unclear, but space historians emphasized the nations’ deep and long-standing relationship around solar system exploration. 

“There's a long history. It's worked relatively well over the years,” Dr. Roger Launius told Nextgov. “At the working level, it works really well.”

Launius formerly served as NASA’s chief historian and as an associate director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He noted that international agreements—written documents that carry the weight of law—are in place to govern spaced-based cooperation between international entities.

In a separate conversation with Nextgov, Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, echoed that notion.

“As part of the larger context, it is worth noting that nearly a hundred countries have ratified the 1968 Rescue Agreement,” or the United Nations Resolution 2345 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects, she explained.

Post-revolutionary Russia—or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—and the United States had a variety of collaborative space projects throughout the Cold War, according to Muir-Harmony.

“The U.S. and USSR were even working on planning cooperative projects in 1962 in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the 1970s, astronauts and cosmonauts did not return to Earth on each other’s spacecraft, but they did train together for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project,” she noted. “There is also the story of Sergei Krikalev, ‘the last Soviet citizen’ who stayed on [Russia’s former Mir space station that deorbited in 2001] twice as long as planned because the Soviet Union dissolved during the mission.”

Initial elements of the ISS launched in 1988 and the first crew to enter it in space did so in 2001. 

“That crew had an American commander—but they flew on a Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station as the first crew to occupy it,” Launius said. “So, it's not an uncommon thing.”

For a bit after the fatal Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the only way for Americans to reach the ISS was on a Soyuz capsule. 

“And so the American astronauts flew on those, both to and from. The shuttle itself was decommissioned and retired in 2011, after its last mission,” Launius added. “And between then, and the coming online of the SpaceX and now Northrop Grumman capabilities to resupply the space station and to do crew rotation, all of the missions to the International Space Station were flown on Soyuz capsules.” 

He pointed out that even in the face of the present, latest conflict, Russian officials are working alongside Americans at Johnson Space Center in Texas. 

“There are people who've been there literally for years in both cases. They're not necessarily astronauts or cosmonauts—I mean, they're engineers or technicians, they do all kinds of things. But, the programs are sort of embedded with each other and there's a good commonality in relationships there,” Launius explained. “And, you know, I assume what you're wanting to get to is the larger geopolitical issues, which, of course, are real. But at the workday level, there's probably less discussion of that than you might think.”

In his view, it’s not likely that there will be “much in terms of disentanglement until the space station is deorbited.” That could happen in the next decade—though, there are no concrete plans for it.

"And so as long as this thing's up there, we're going to keep it occupied. And it's going to be an international crew and we're going to have to work together or find ways to work around all that—and nobody at the working level wants to do that. I mean, people may grouse about, you know, if you're an American, you may say ‘the Russians are hard to work with’ on occasion, and probably they are. If you're a Russian, you may say ‘the Americans are hard to work with’ on occasion, and probably they are,” Launius added. “But generally speaking, the program is better off unified as it is than not.”