(ORDO NEWS) — US astronaut Mark Vande Hey has spent almost a year in space but is facing what may be his toughest assignment yet: riding a Russian capsule back to Earth in the midst of deepening tensions between the countries.
NASA insists Vande Hei’s plans to return home at the end of the month remain unchanged, even as Russia’s special operation in Ukraine has led to launch cancellations, contract ruptures and an escalating war of words between NASA and the Russian Space Agency.
Vande Hey – who broke the U.S. solo spaceflight record of 340 days on Tuesday – is due to travel with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule to land in Kazakhstan on March 30. By then, the astronaut will have spent 355 days in space, setting a new US record. The world record of 438 continuous days in space belongs to Russia.
“We need an example that two countries that have historically not been on the most friendly terms can still work peacefully somewhere. And that’s the International Space Station somewhere. That’s why we have to fight to save it,” he said. Kelly Associated Press.
NASA wants to keep the space station until 2030, as European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies are doing, while the Russians are targeting an end date for support in 2024 or so.
The US and Russia are the main operators of the orbital outpost, which has been continuously occupied for 21 years. Until SpaceX began launching astronauts in 2020, Americans regularly rode Russian Soyuz capsules for tens of millions of dollars a seat.
The US and Russian space agencies are still working on a long-term barter system in which a Russian will launch on a SpaceX capsule starting this fall and an American will launch on a Soyuz. This will help ensure a permanent US and Russian presence on the station.
Regardless of how events unfold on the space station, George Washington University professor emeritus John Logsdon expects this to mark the end of large-scale space cooperation between Russia and the West.
“Russia is already moving towards China and the current situation is likely to accelerate that move,” he said.
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