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NASA astronaut returns to Earth on a Russian Soyuz

Mission launched during a pandemic, returned during... oh God, what now?

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth today aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule and accompanied by two Russian cosmonauts.

Vande Hei's 355-day mission is the longest single spaceflight for a NASA astronaut, comfortably eclipsing the 340 days of Scott Kelly's mission from 2015 to 2016.

Kelly's interactions with Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin on Twitter are a reminder that Vande Hei has returned to a changed world. The International Space Station (ISS) is pretty much the last example of global cooperation in space (at least as far as Russia is concerned).

Missions have been canceled or suspended as relations with Western space agencies have broken down thanks to Russia's military campaign in Ukraine.

There had been speculation that Vande Hei might have been returned via a SpaceX Crew Dragon. NASA, however, has continued to stick to the line that cooperation was alive and well aboard the ISS and its astronaut would be coming back on Soyuz MS-19 as planned.

Having made a successful landing on the Kazakhstan Steppe at 1128 UTC (0428 Pacific, 0728 Eastern), Vande Hei is to be whisked back to Houston, Texas while the two cosmonauts will be returned to Star City in Russia.

Francisco Rubio was the next NASA astronaut expected to fly on a Russian rocket for September's Soyuz MS-22 mission. The plan had been to fly a Russian cosmonaut aboard a SpaceX mission, leaving a seat in the Soyuz for Rubio. However, recent tensions between countries make such an exchange look increasingly unlikely, although NASA has yet to confirm that Rubio's trip to Baikonur is off.

Vande Hei's return is therefore bittersweet. There is no doubting his achievement (in total he has spent 523 days in space) but the end of his mission is a reminder that the international cooperation NASA is so keen to promote may not last much longer.

Shortly before Vande Hei's return, Rogozin appeared to threaten Russia's departure from the project sooner rather than later.

There was a 19-year gap between the Apollo Soyuz Test Project of 1975 and Space Shuttle Discovery docking with the Mir Space Station in 1994. Agency bosses will be hoping for a shorter gap before relations thaw once again. ®

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