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Mark Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts return from ISS in Soyuz

By Amy Thompson & UPI Staff
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Mark Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts return from ISS in Soyuz
Mark Vande Hei gives a thumbs up after returning to Earth following a record-setting 355 days in space. Photo courtesy of NASA/Flickr

March 30 (UPI) -- After a record-breaking 355 days in space, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei has returned to Earth.

A Russian Soyuz capsule safely returned Vande Hei and two Russian cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, to Earth Wednesday morning, landing in a field in Kazakhstan around 7:30 a.m. EDT.

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The Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft undocked from Rassvet module aboard the International Space Station around 3:21 a.m. EDT to start the journey back to Earth.

A 4-minute deorbit burn at 6:34 a.m. slowed the spacecraft so it could reenter the atmosphere and touchdown under parachute on the steppe of Kazakhstan.

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The spacecraft landed in its planned upright position, but was tipped on its side due to windy conditions tugging at the craft's parachutes. NASA and Russian crews were standing by to assist all three spaceflyers out of the capsule and back on terra firma.

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After the successful landing, "Welcome back, Mark" was displayed in both English and Russian on screen in Russia's Mission Control Center, congratulating Vande Hei on his historic flight.

Despite mounting geopolitical tensions stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NASA has repeatedly stated that it continues to work closely with officials at Roscosmos, Russia's Space Agency, with joint operations continuing to go well.

The cooperation was evidenced by a change of command ceremony that took place Tuesday on the space station, ahead of the crew's return.

"On Earth, people have problems," Skhaplerov said as he reflected on his time in orbit. "On orbit, we are one crew and I think the ISS is a symbol of friendship, cooperation and our flexible future of space exploration."

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Skhaplerov, who was the space station's commander, turned the reigns over to NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who said it was an honor and a privilege to accept command.

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"I can't thank you enough for your dedication to the safety of the station, the safety of the crew, and for your humor and friendship and dedication to the mission," Marshburn said.

Marshburn flew to the space station in November 2021, riding a SpaceX Dragon with fellow NASA astronauts Kayla Barron and Raja Chari, along with German astronaut Matthias Maurer. The quartet are scheduled to return to Earth in April.

On March 18, for the first time in more than 20 years, a crew of three Russian cosmonauts -- Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov -- launched from Baikonur's Cosmodrome and docked with the orbital outpost, temporarily bringing the crew up to 10. They're scheduled to stay for six months before returning home.

With Vande Hei, Skhaperlov and Dubrov's departure, it brings the total number of ISS residents back down to 7 -- at least for now.

SpaceX is gearing up to launch its first-ever private astronaut mission to the ISS. Called Axiom-1, the flight will feature retired NASA astronaut, Michael Lopez-Alegria, along with three private citizens, traveling to the orbital outpost.

Scheduled to launch on April 6, they will stay for 10 days, performing a bevy of research investigations before returning to Earth.

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Space tourists have flown on Russian Soyuz spacecraft before, but this is the first time a crew of all private citizens will fly on a commercial vehicle to the space station. If all goes as planned, it will be the first of many, as NASA is working with Axiom to launch as many as four missions, with only two on the books so far.

April is a busy month for the ISS, with a new set of astronauts scheduled to launch as part of SpaceX's fourth crewed mission for NASA.

Jessica Watkins, Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines of NASA will be joined by Italian astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti for a six-month stay aboard the ISS.

Vande Hei and his crewmates will go through a series of health checks before they are flown home, with Vande Hei returning to Houston and Skhaperlov and Dubrov returning to Star City, Russia.

Vande Hei now holds the record for the most number of consecutive days in space, a record previously set by Scott Kelly during his 340-day stay in space as part of NASA's first one-year mission.

Data collected during Vande Hei's flight will help researchers better understand the effects of microgravity on the human body -- key insights scientists say will help the agency better prepare to send astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.

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