As of Tuesday, Mark Vande Hei will hold the record for longest continuous space flight for an American. There were concerns that Hei would have to extend his stay past his planned March 30 return on a Soyuz capsule due to tension between Russia and the U.S. Now both the Russian and American space agencies are assuring the world that they are still working together when it comes to the ISS.
Rumors that Russia might strand Hei and other non-Russian space goers (currently aboard the ISS there are four American astronauts including Hei, as well as one German astronaut and two cosmonauts) started due to comments and social media posts from Russia’s Director General of Roscosmos and Putin fanboy, Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin made some pretty pointed threats to the space station, including saying the ISS could crash into the U.S. without Russian propulsion systems and saying on state TV that Americans won’t be getting any more rockets from the country or servicing on the engines already in use.
“In a situation like this we can’t supply the United States with our world’s best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what,” Rogozin said on state Russian television.
Then, on March 5, Rogozin posted this artist rendering of Russian cosmonauts leaving the ISS and the Russian portion of the space station detaching:
This was consider the most pointed threat to the stability of the ISS yet, and had many outside of the space industry nervous about Hei’s planned return to Earth on a Soyuz capsule. Rogozin is known for his bombastic social media posts and media soundbites, but at this point in world history, it would be a mistake to dismiss such threats as nothing more than bluster, especially considering that some of Rogozin’s tirades do end up as policy. Some American news outlets took Rogozin reposting this video as a direct threat to the safety of astronauts aboard the ISS, but that is simply not the case, according to the Verge:
“US astronaut Mark Vande Hei will travel back home in the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft together with Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov on March 30,” Roscosmos said in a statement, according to TASS. Vande Hei and the rest of his crew are slated to land in Kazakhstan, as has been the landing destination for all previous Soyuz landings. Meanwhile, NASA has also maintained that both the US space agency and Roscosmos continue to work together on the International Space Station and that operations continue as normal.
In the TASS report refuting the claims about Vande Hei, Roscosmos tried to downplay the furor. “Roscosmos has never let anybody doubt its reliability as a partner,” the corporation’s press service said.
Many in the space community did not take these threats seriously from the start, and it seems outlets like Fox and Good Morning America may have jumped the gun on fearing for astronauts. Indeed, NASA and Roscosmos have worked together admirably through tense global situations before. Both space agencies have assured media and the public that their partnership continues to run smoothly, even as things get rough here on Earth.
This isn’t Hei’s first stay on the space station. He spent 168 days on the ISS in 2018. He beat Scott Kelly for the American record of longest stay in space Tuesday, and every day until his March 30 return is icing on the microgravity cake. One of the reasons Hei has been in space nearly a year is to make sure there is always an American presence onboard, according to an interview he did with ABC and CBS in January:
“I didn’t know with certainty that the flight would be this long when I launched, but I certainly knew that it was a possibility. I felt like it was an opportunity to fill a need that we had, and I was very happy to be able to fill it.”
“I am in space to make sure that we had a continuous U.S. presence on the space station. Crews didn’t overlap most recently and I was the only [American] on the space station for about a week because of that.”
Meanwhile, the German space agency has actually taken steps to end its partnership with Roscosmos. The Germans even turned off their portion of the Spektr-RG space telescope, a joint project between Russia and Germany, and axed all future projects between the two nations, Universe Today reports.