In a Russian Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, Vande Hei and cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov undocked from the International Space Station at 3.21 a.m. ET Wednesday. They touched down after a parachute-assisted landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 7:28 a.m. ET.
The Soyuz landed upright but ended up on its side due to winds pulling the parachute. Recovery teams assisted the crew in leaving the capsule. After landing, the Russian mission control center’s main screen shared the message, “Welcome back, Mark!”
It was a highly anticipated return that has only drawn more attention due to mounting geopolitical tensions over the past month, and NASA has repeatedly reaffirmed that it continues to work closely with Russian space agency Roscosmos.
After a health check and a two-hour helicopter ride to the recovery staging city of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, Vande Hei will travel back to Houston aboard a Gulfstream jet, as other NASA astronauts have done before, and the cosmonauts will return to their training base in Star City, Russia. Vande Hei’s NASA plane will make a stop in Colonge, Germany for refueling before heading home.
Joint operations between NASA and Roscosmos at the Russian facilities at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, “continue to go well,” said Joel Montalbano, the manager of NASA’s International Space Station program, during a press conference on March 14.
Vande Hei and Dubrov launched to the space station in April 2021, and together they have completed 5,680 orbits of Earth and traveled more than 150 million miles around our planet. Vande Hei has now broken the record for the longest single spaceflight by an American astronaut, which previously was set by Kelly at 340 days.
“Mark’s mission is not only record-breaking, but also paving the way for future human explorers on the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “Our astronauts make incredible sacrifices in the name of science, exploration, and cutting-edge technology development, not least among them time away from loved ones. NASA and the nation are proud to welcome Mark home and grateful for his incredible contributions throughout his year-long stay on the International Space Station.”
This was Vande Hei’s second spaceflight, so he has logged a total of 523 days in space. It was Dubrov’s first flight.
Change of command
Shkaplerov handed over command of the International Space Station to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn Tuesday morning. Before handing Marshburn a ceremonial “key” to the space station, signifying the change in command, Shkaplerov reflected on his time in space, including some of the situations the crew have faced.
He also reinforced the close-knit and familial nature of the space station crew, especially given current geopolitical tensions.
“People have problems on Earth,” he said. “On orbit, we are one crew, and I think ISS is like a symbol of the friendship, cooperation (and) our flexible future of exploration of space. Thank you very much, my crew members. You are like my space brothers and space sister.”
Marshburn said it was an honor and privilege to accept command of the space station, “continuing the international partnership and that legacy in spaceflight.” Marshburn thanked Shkaplerov for being a “wonderful commander.”
“I can’t thank you enough for your dedication to the safety of the station, the safety of your crew, your humor, your friendship and your dedication to the flight control teams around the world,” Marshburn said.
Comings and goings
The space station won’t be home to a crew of seven for long. The private Axiom Space-1 mission, carrying former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and US crew members Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, is launching to the space station no earlier than April 6. The Axiom crew will return after 10 days.
Then, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission will bring NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, as well as ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, to the space station later in April.
“The agency and our international partners are constantly identifying and mitigating risks of human spaceflight,” according to a NASA statement.
CNN’s Katie Hunt and Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.